Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Methane Hydrate / Clathrate Controversy

Methane Hydrate / Clathrate
I. Background

Observers of the warming oceans have considered many impacts which that warming will have.

On one issue, their are two camps, one saying hydrates will substantially contribute to human extinction, and the other saying it will not.

In other words, the verbal battle lines are well defined.

However, we have to look closer if we want to understand the issues.

So let's take a look.

I am not ready to conclude in this post, rather, I am only laying the issue out on the table for consideration at this time.

II. Basic Views of the Two Camps

A. The Clathrate Catastrophe Camp

The Nature Bats Last blog sets forth the near term human extinction (NTHE) position:
By 15 December 2013, methane bubbling up from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean had sufficient force to prevent sea ice from forming in the area. Nearly two years after his initial, oft-disparaged analysis, Malcolm Light concluded on 22 December 2013, “we have passed the methane hydrate tipping point and are now accelerating into extinction as the methane hydrate ‘Clathrate Gun’ has begun firing volleys of methane into the Arctic atmosphere.” According to Light’s analysis in late 2013, the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere will resemble that of Venus before 2100.
(Nature Bats Last). The "clathrate gun" reference is sometimes called a hypothesis (Clathrate Gun Hypothesis).

B. The "Nothing To See Here, Move Along Folks" Camp 

This camp has some formidable members too, who plainly say that the other camp is a bit over the top:
News stories and Web postings have raised concerns that climate warming will release large volumes of methane from gas hydrates, kicking off a chain reaction of warming and methane releases. But recent research indicates that most of the world’s gas hydrate deposits should remain stable for the next few thousand years. Of the gas hydrates likely to become unstable, few are likely to release methane that could reach the atmosphere and intensify climate warming.
(USGS: Why a Methane Catastrophe Is Unlikely). Ok, we see that distinct debate lines, on a very important subject, have been drawn.

III. The Admitted Unknowns

A. How Much

The USGS indicates that there are no tools with which to determine which source current atmospheric methane comes from:
The atmospheric concentration of methane, like that of carbon dioxide, has increased since the onset of the Industrial Revolution (fig. 5). Methane in the atmosphere comes from many sources, including wetlands, rice cultivation, termites, cows and other ruminants, forest fires, and fossil fuel production (fig. 6). Some researchers have estimated that up to 2 percent of atmospheric methane may originate with dissociation of global gas hydrates. Currently, scientists do not have a tool to say with certainty how much, or if any, atmospheric methane comes from hydrates.
(USGS: Gas Hydrates and Climate Warming, emphasis added). Of the "2 percent" of atmospheric methane in the air we breathe, it is not known how much of it comes from methane hydrates that have broken down and released their caged methane.

B. Lack of Research and Data?

A lot of attention is being paid to the matter, however, some say the science has not yet matured:
In the field of methane emission research today, the Arctic is one of the most important regions worldwide. It is believed that methane occurs there both in the form of gas hydrate in the sea and as free gas trapped in the deep-frozen permafrost. Methane deposits in permafrost and hydrates are considered to be very sensitive in the expansive shallow-shelf regions, because with the relatively low pressures it would only take a small temperature change to release large amounts of methane. In addition, new methane is continuously being produced because the Arctic regions are rich in organic material that is decomposed by microbes in the sediment. The activity of these microbes and thus the biological release rates of methane are also stimulated by increases in temperature. Hence methane emissions in the Arctic have multiple sources. International scientific consortia are now being established involving researchers from various disciplines – chemists, biologists, geologists, geophysicists, meteorologists – which are intensively addressing this problem. No one can yet say with certainty how the methane release in the Arctic will develop with global warming, either in the ocean or on the land. This research is still in its in­fancy.
(World Ocean Review, p. 2, emphasis added). How such an important issue leaves scientists in the dark because of methane clathrate research immaturity is troubling.

C. Jury Still Out?

One good place to observe the dynamic back and forth is a Guardian piece:
Can scientists overcome huge uncertainties to pin down how close, or far, we might be to a tipping point?

About a week ago, climate scientist Michael Tobis wrote a critique of my 'Seven facts about the Arctic methane time bomb' following a twitter exchange with him and Chris Colose, author of an article at Skeptical Science arguing that the core scenario of a new Nature paper by Gail Whiteman et. al on the economic costs of Arctic climate change is extremely unlikely.

Much of this debate kicked off because the said Nature paper advances a hypothetical scenario for an abrupt Arctic methane release over either a decade or several decades of about 50 gigatonnes (Gt), and argues specifically that such a scenario is "likely." My own attempt to understand the literature convinced me that the scenario should be viewed as a serious possibility.

Tobis on the other hand is the latest amongst several scientists offering scathing criticisms of that scenario, which in his own words is "as close to impossible as anything in earth science; actual geophysics refutes it."

He begins with my first point, 1. The 50 Gigatonne decadal methane pulse scenario was posited by four Arctic specialists, and is considered plausible by Met Office scientists.

Tobis writes that the Review of Geophysics paper I cite says
"Arctic thawing may release in excess of 50 GT of C [Carbon], a very serious matter... But Ahmed refers to the paper in support of a very different assertion, that 50 GT of methane would be released... But the paper to which he points says nothing of the sort. I conclude that he doesn't really know what he is talking about. Specifically he has already shown that he is confused about the distinction between methane releases and CO2 releases."
However, the carbon release scenarios from permafrost explored by the paper include both methane and carbon. Here's what the paper says:
"The most important determinant of whether release of frozen carbon happens as CO2 or CH4 [methane] is whether decomposition proceeds aerobically or anaerobically... In anaerobic conditions, a greater proportion of soil organic carbon decomposition is released as CH4, although not all of it necessarily reaches the atmosphere."
Following this paragraph, the paper cites several scenarios for large-scale releases from permafrost carbon, including the 50-100 Gt carbon release I mentioned.
(Why The Jury's Still Out). The jury is out for some people, but not out for others it would seem.

IV. Some Other Scientists Speak Out Boldly

An expert on the Siberian Arctic methane hydrate scenario has published some papers indicating that a serious condition exists:
Extremely high concentrations of methane (up to 8 ppm) in the atmospheric layer above the sea surface along with anomalously high concentrations of dissolved methane in the water column (up to 560 nM, or 12000% of super saturation), registered during a summertime cruise over the ESS in September 2005, were analyzed together with available data obtained during previous and subsequent expeditions to distinguish between possible methane sources of different origin, potential, and mobility. Using indirect evidence it was shown that one such source may be highly potential and extremely mobile shallow methane hydrates, whose stability zone is seabed permafrost-related and could be disturbed upon permafrost development, degradation, and thawing. Further immobilization of stored methane could cause abrupt methane release and unpredictable climatic consequences.
(Geophysical Research Abstracts, by Shakhova et al., PDF; cf this). I will refer to one other scientist before closing:
Paul Beckwith, a climatology and meteorology professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada, is an engineer and physicist who researches abrupt climate change in both the present day and in the paleoclimatology records of the deep past.

“It is my view that our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two,” Beckwith told me. “Obviously, such a large change in the climate system will have unprecedented effects on the health and well-being of every plant and animal on our planet.”
(The Methane Monster Roars). This year is still struggling to become the record year, by having the lowest Arctic sea ice extent of all other years.

That is, the lowest since the recent record was set in the year 2012 (Arctic Ice Extent: 2015 Struggles For First Place - 2).

V. Conclusion

The Obama Administration's allowing Arctic area drilling to find more of the poison that is threatening civilization was a deadly event, all their promises to cut poison GHG emissions notwithstanding.

Dr. Shakhova camp:


  1. I'm just going to say unequivocally that the phrasing of the issue as catastrophic or not quite so is utterly simplistic in that methane release is ONLY ONE of the MANY troubles we face as a civilization - very few if any of which have "solutions."

    Now staying on topic, everyone who has read either NBL or dozens of other blogs I comment on can immediately tell that I'm a complete doomer. Not only that, after all I've read and continue to research, it looks to me that humanity (along with too many other species of plant and animal life that we depend on for our existence) will be completely wiped off the face of the planet, which will not be functioning to support any life, by 2030.

    Already growing crops is becoming difficult to practically impossible due to climate change effects - wild swings in temperature, too hot, cold, wet or dry to support plant growth, and insects and diseases that are prevalent in such weakened vegetation. Marine life is dying off catastrophically - the Pacific Ocean is becoming barren, there are large dead zones in the Atlantic now too, and in both hemispheres. Our pollution continues apace while the clear signs of environmental collapse are being ignored - due to dis and mis information from vested interest groups like those mentioned in the second camp above.

    Denial of the facts doesn't constitute a "camp." It indicates INSANITY at the very least.

    This comment could easily turn into a separate post, so i'll stop here for now. I've only spoken here today about one issue - food production to feed the billions (and growing) that depend on sustenance in order to survive. There are too many other issues that also impact our survival that i'll hold off delineating or writing about.


    1. IMO the way things are going, it will look like doomers took the easy way out, since they have all of the relevant evidence.

      The cornucopians, on the other hand, have the difficult job of trying to prove something without evidence but with hope only.

  2. Second point regarding methane release: it's not all coming from under water!

    Permafrost is thawing and releasing methane, as are boreal forests, peat bogs and decaying matter in landfills.

    It's even coming from FRACKING (ie. underground):

    Bombshell Study Reveals Methane Emissions Hugely Underestimated

    In a paper published at Energy & Science Engineering, expert and gas industry consultant Touché Howard argues that a much-heralded 2013 study by the University of Texas relied on a faulty measurement instrument, the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler (BHFS), causing its findings to low-ball actual emission rates "by factors of three to five."

    "The data reported by the University of Texas study suggest their measurements exhibit this sensor failure, as shown by the paucity of high-emitting observations when the wellhead gas composition was less than 91% CH4, where sensor failures are most likely," Howard writes, "during follow-up testing, the BHFS used in that study indeed exhibited sensor failure consistent with under-reporting of these high emitters."

    Jamie Henn, communications director for called Howard's findings a "bombshell," adding: "The more we learn about fracking, the worse it is for the environment."

    If Howard is correct, the study throws into question countless other estimates of methane emissions from natural gas production through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has been hailed as a low-emission energy solution. [more]


    1. Tom,

      Remember this post is about methane hydrates, clathrates.

      They are not the same as non-hydrate methane gas itself.

  3. Doesn't it all result in methane escaping into the atmosphere? Won't it have the same effect? Why are we nit-picking?

    okay, okay . . . you wanna stay underwater, fine, that's where we'll concentrate.

    If sea level change lowers the Arctic level to expose the clathrate beds to much warmer conditions than they're used to, they'll dissolve and the methane will be released into the air. [Bingo - big trouble!]

    Even before this occurs, wouldn't the on-going releases we know about have an effect not only on the atmosphere but also on the water quality itself - ie. killing living organisms in the water (like krill, etc)? In other words, no matter whether the methane reaches the atmosphere or stays dissolved in the water, it'll have a negative effect on life.

    We've changed the chemistry profoundly in the atmosphere and oceans. Clearly, this isn't a beneficial development.


    1. Tom,

      I get your drift.

      Where the methane hydrates are is where the utter lack of control is.

      "Natural gas" wells (methane non-hydrates) are captured then burned releasing:

      "At the power plant, the burning of natural gas produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, but in lower quantities than burning coal or oil. >Methane, a primary component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas, can also be emitted into the air when natural gas is not burned completely."


      One is baseball the other is football.

      Not nitpicking, just being very accurate not to have muddy water brain mixed with my Muddy Waters binary blues brain.

      This is science ... methane molecules in the atmosphere are measured in ppb while carbon dioxide is measured in ppm.

      A thousand times different.

      That disparity would go away if the Arctic methane-hydrate big burp took place and methane became measured in ppm.

      That won't happen any time soon only with power plants, business, vehicles, and homes using methane ("natural gas") for power and/or heating, rather than coal and/or oil.

      Civilization always prefers a slow death, rather than an Arctic methane-hydrate burp catastrophic death.

  4. HAAA-HAAAAAAAAAAAAA! Brilliant. "i see what yer sayin'." Thanks Dredd.