Will a burst of methane rise up from the sea along Siberia – creating a heat emergency never seen before? Why is this formerly sleepy science so controversial? Sara Sayedi and over 20 Arctic permafrost experts. Then: shocking reporting on the U.S. natural gas system leaking methane sky-high. Sample of Chris Nelder’s Energy Transition Show #140 “Methane Leakage”, with guests Emily Grubert and Mason Inman.
Are you worried about methane pushing us over the precipice of global warming? You should be. About one quarter of the climate changing impact is coming from methane, compared to the larger share for carbon dioxide. But if your sources point to methane plumes rising up from the seabed north of Siberia, you are being misdirected.
We humans produce far more methane emissions burning so-called “natural” gas. The methane leaks out everywhere from the well heads to pipelines and even your home gas meter. Later in the program we will get a taste of a new report “The Gas Index” put out by Global Energy Monitor. I will play sample clips from a deep-dive examination of methane leaks in America’s gas system, with podcast host and producer Chris Nelder’s Energy Transition show.
But first, what is really going on in the Russian Arctic seas? Is a “methane bomb” going off in the hot Arctic? Lets find out what a collection of world experts on permafrost say.
ARCTIC METHANE BOMB? SARA SAYEDI
Scientist Sara Sayedi asked some of the world’s top experts. In December 2020, Sayedi and 31 co-authors published the paper “Subsea permafrost carbon stocks and climate change sensitivity estimated by expert assessment”.
Sayedi was educated in Iran, coming to Brigham Young University to complete here PhD in plant and wildlife science. Her intention is to make a bridge between top scientists and public policy makers who could make a difference.
In December 2018, Sara made a preliminary presentation of the science in this paper at the American Geophysical Union . While it is a normal part of science to receive criticism (that actually helps develop the paper) – Sara was a little surprised at the strength of opposition, from a few scientists, to doing this at all.
You can watch a YouTube of that presentation at the AGU here.
YOU CAN WATCH MY RADIO ECOSHOCK INTERVIEW WITH SARA ON YOUTUBE
You can find a slightly shorter version of this interview posted on YouTube.
WHY “SUBSEA PERMAFROST” IS A METHANE WORRY
The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) covered a lot of the Northern Hemisphere with thick sheets of ice, in some places more than a mile deep. That was 22,000 years ago. So much fresh water was hauled out of Earth’s hydrological system that sea levels retreated to levels over 100 feet lower than today. Some parts of the Arctic were not buried, and green shrubs, grasses and other plants built up layers of carbon debris.
As the great glaciers retreated, the sea came rushing back in. Large parts of Siberia, for example, went under water, forming what is now known as the East Siberian Arctic Shelf – a large area of the Arctic Ocean with shallow waters leading up to Russian shores. The former plant life became part of the permafrost, but now under the sea.
That is where scientists worry large amounts of methane can escape into the atmosphere, bubbling up from the bottom as the Arctic Ocean gets warmer and warmer. How fast is it coming out into the atmosphere, and what can we expect this century? Sara got expert assessments from over 25 scientists working in that field, and pooled them into a process officially known as “an expert assessment”. That is a common tool in science with rules.
The new Sayedi-led paper notes conflict in this field:
“One unexpected finding of this research was that the dearth of data on the subsea permafrost domain is partially due to divisions in the subsea permafrost research community.
While previous expert assessments on other topics have always involved strong opinions and evidence-based disagreements (Schuur et al 2013, Abbott et al 2016), we found that many invited experts declined to participate or at least expressed serious concerns because of political and territorial considerations, including perceived or real threat of retribution or negative professional consequences.”
One of the better known Russian permafrost experts is Dr. Igor Semiletov from Russia’s Institute of Natural Resources in Tomsk. Semiletov, often working with his partner Natalia Shakhova, has led the most expedition ships to measure methane release from the East Siberian sea shelf. A couple of those research trips were funded by the Swedes. Natalia formerly worked at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but has returned to Russia.
In 2014, neither of these Russian experts was asked to attend a Royal Society conference on methane from the Arctic. They were not invited, and some controversy developed. Sara had 5 or 6 Russian experts in her new study, but not Semiletov or Shakhova. They were invited Sara said, but did not agree to take part.
Here is a list of Russian permafrost experts who were consulted for this study: Nikita Demidov, Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI); Anatoliy Gavrilov, Faculty of geology, Lomonosov Moscow State University; Elena Pizhankova, Faculty of geology, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow; Alexander Vasiliev; Tyumen scientific Center of SB RAS, Tyumen, Russia; Annie Bourbonnais, Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Most of you know a small group of scientists and followers, encouraged by statements from Dr. Natalia Shakhova, believe we are approaching a catastrophic release of methane from subsea permafrost. University of Arizona Professor Emeritus Guy McPherson suggested humans would go extinct very soon because of this. We have the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, which includes seasoned ice scientist Dr. Peter Wadhams from the Cambridge polar group.
The group of experts gathered by Sayedi do NOT expect this to happen. In a time of grave climate news, maybe this is something you do not need to worry about. I will talk about that later in this blog and in next week’s show.
WHERE THE GLOBAL METHANE INCREASE REALLY COMES FROM: EAST AFRICA
Huge methane emission rise follows extreme rainfall in East Africa
by Institute of Physics, Feburary 3, 2021
RESULTS FROM SAYEDI ET AL: WHAT EXPERTS THINK
This paper is well worth reading. Anyone can understand it, there are not a lot of obscure formulas. More than 20 experts look at possible impacts in the years 2050, 2100, and 2300. For each year, they considered three possible emissions pathways employed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These are called RCP2.6 – the most optimistic, RCP4.5 – a kind of terrible middle ground, and RCP8.5 as a worst case scenario with high emissions. We are currently on the RCP8.5 pathway.
There is a wide range of answers from the experts for each case. Methane releases, for example, may be relatively little and slow, or could be a lot much faster than we can tolerate.
FROM THE PAPER
“The median estimate by the group of experts for the area of formerly subaerial permafrost inundated after the LGM was 3.5 million km2 (2.5–4.4; range is the 90% confidence interval), which agrees closely with estimates from the literature (Lindgren et al 2016, Overduin et al 2019). This estimate suggests the subsea permafrost domain is ~1/5 the size of the terrestrial permafrost domain, which includes ~18 million km2 in the Northern Hemisphere (Hugelius et al 2014, Schuur et al 2015).”
“We asked experts to estimate potential changes in CO2 and CH4 flux for three climate scenarios from the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (Moss et al 2010). The selected RCPs were RCP2.6, which has a peak concentration of ~490 ppm CO2-equivalent (CO2e) reached before 2100, RCP4.5 with a peak of ~650 ppm CO2e at 2100, and RCP8.5 with a peak of ~1400 ppm CO2e at 2100 (Moss et al 2010, Koenigk et al 2013).”
The greatest estimates of the amount of CH4 flux to the atmosphere comes from the RCP8.5, at a 49% increase in methane emissions by the year 2300. RCP8.5 is our current path. But the lowest is only 2% increase by 2050, with the almost unattainable RCP2.6. The paper says:
“For RCP8.5, emissions were substantially higher across 2050, 2100, and 2300, with 13 (5–36), 43 (14–110), and 190 Gt CO2e (45–590) released, respectively”.
“ …experts agreed that subsea permafrost will degrade faster and contribute more emissions under RCP8.5 compared to RCP2.6, suggesting that this system is still responsive to short-term anthropogenic forcing. Therefore, ignoring this system in climate change policies exacerbates the risk of underestimating ecosystem feedbacks and overshooting climate targets.”
SUBSEA PERMAFROST MAY EXPRESS HUMAN CLIMATE CHANGE – HUNDREDS OR THOUSANDS OF YEARS FROM NOW
From Sayedi et al:
“this suggests that the subsea permafrost system responds relatively slowly (i.e. millennial timescales) to climate change, and that anthropogenically-driven changes may only substantially alter subsea permafrost dynamics several hundreds or thousands of years from now. “
SUBSEA HYDRATES PLAYED MINIMAL ROLE IN ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE IN PAST
“These findings of relatively insensitive CH4 deposits support the growing evidence from paleoclimate studies that subsea hydrates contributed minimally to the abrupt climate change and correspondingly abrupt increase in CH4 at the beginning of the Holocene (Fischer et al 2008, Sowers 2010, Petrenko et al 2017, Dyonisius et al 2020) and during previous paleoclimate perturbations (Jurikova et al 2020).”
– Sayedi et al
CHANGES IN A CHANGING CLIMATE
There is some debate about whether a warmer north will encourage plants to capture more carbon. But your experts think subsea greenhouse gas emissions will be greater than northern plant life can capture?
Your study notes several major Earth systems that could influence how fast these greenhouse gases could emerge. It talks about, quote: “changes in temperature, microbial activity, sea level, altered chemistry in the Arctic Ocean, and changes in photosynthesis associated with loss of sea ice or changes in nutrient availability”. There could be tipping points in any of those! It sounds like a pretty uncertain picture doesn’t it?
A lot more of the Siberian and other cold coastlines will be submerged as sea levels rise in this warming. This study did not consider rising seas.
I recently interviewed Canadian scientist Andrew MacDougall about his paper “Is there warming in the pipeline A multi-model analysis of the Zero Emissions Commitment from CO2.”
Their team concluded that once humans stop emitting greenhouse gases, Earth will stabilize at whatever temperature is reached at that point. They used 18 of the best climate models in the world. But MacDougall told us only one model considered permafrost emissions, and I think that was for land-based emissions. It doesn’t sound like permafrost science is getting into big climate reports, and that means it isn’t getting to policy decision makers either.
DON’T SWEAT A METHANE BURST FROM THE ARCTIC (for now)
We just heard from Sara Sayedi summarizing over 20 experts on sub-sea permafrost and the methane risk. Last week we heard a similar report from Canadian climate scientist Andrew MacDougall. So this makes two new reports from science saying methane emissions from the Siberian sea bed are comparatively low and steady. Methane is increasing in the global atmosphere, but not because of Arctic releases. Tropical bogs are the main source of extra methane. We heard that from Radio Ecoshock guest Euan Nisbet broadcast March 6 2019. Dr. Nisbet collects carefully collected air sample flasks from all over the world. The composition of the methane reveals new organic sources, not ancient plant matter decomposition.
Humans burning natural gas are the second largest source of methane into the atmosphere. It is something we can control by getting off gas. Anybody who tells you this civilization can avoid dangerous climate change and still burn a fossil fuel like natural gas is either deluded or is gets money, one way or another, from the industry. Natural gas has been sold as a “bridge fuel” or even a “clean fuel” but really it is a “climate killing fossil fuel”. If we keep lying to ourselves about that, times will get hot, hotter, stormy, and hard to live through.
You can find at least a half dozen shows questioning whether an Arctic methane bomb lurks in the near-time horizon. All but a slim few of the scientists I ask say a big burst of methane is not going to happen, and they explain why. I will put links to some of those show interviews in my weekly blog at ecoshock.org. This whole Arctic methane bomb scare came from a statement in 2008 by a single Russian scientist, Dr. Natalia Shakhova.
The whole story is off the rails. I may lose a few listeners, or even donors, who firmly believe in the Arctic methane scare. A few people quit their jobs expecting imminent social collapse when a burst of warming followed a 50 gigaton burst of methane out of the sea bed.
Even the Russian scientist Natalia Shakhova who in 2008 suggested a 50 gig release could happen any time – has since denied she said it. (There is a record of her saying it). Shakhova and her partner Igor Semiletov work from an Institute in Tomsk east of the Urals. They keep finding international funders (almost every year for 20 years) to go look for large amounts of methane going into the atmosphere. They don’t find it. But the Guardian prints their annual warning of imminent doom every year anyway.
You probably know YouTube hosts who started this methane fear into a movement. Some environmentalists hold VERY STRONG beliefs this is true. The whole Guy MacPherson “we are all going extinct in 5 years” depends upon the 50 gigaton burst which, like Jesus, never comes. The methane bomb believers, like Sam Carana, get riled up when anyone challenges their beliefs.
The Russian government helps fund the expeditions to find a natural methane bogeyman hiding in the Arctic, far away from humans. This fear destabilizes people in the West, and distracts from the real source of methane in that region: the gigantic Russian gas industry, with it’s long leaky pipelines sagging with the permafrost. Siberian gas flows to the countries of the former Soviet Union, and to the European Union. A lot of German homes and businesses run on Russian natural gas. That makes for interesting geopolitics, like last week’s expulsion of diplomats and threats of more sanctions. The Russians and Europeans can fight like married people, but at this point neither can afford to stop the gas flowing, and the world warming.
MORE RADIO ECOSHOCK SHOWS ON METHANE FROM THE SEA
At the bottom of this blog I put a small catalog of previous interviews with scientists about the Arctic methane problem.
THE REAL METHANE THREAT – IN AMERICA FOR EXAMPLE
But why pick on Russia? Fossil fuel addiction has gone global. Climate killing methane is leaking out at every possible stage of the process, from drilling through pipelines, storage, and even your home gas meter and appliances. This happens in every country that uses so-called “natural gas”. But producing countries like the United States, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and Australia release far more methane.
The gas system is riddled with leaks. Hardly anyone measures the leakage other than vague estimates of “product loss” along the way. They can lost one third lost before anything is be burned, or more. There is virtually no inspection, few regulations, and zero enforcement against these methane leaks. The leaks continue even when major equipment failures are pumping dangerous climate gases into the air for weeks or even years. With today’s low gas prices, and corporations taking profits, it supposedly doesn’t “pay” to fix the leaks and keep wasted methane out of the atmosphere.
CHRIS NELDER ON “METHANE LEAKAGE” – The Energy Transition Show
Podcast host Chris Nelder just did a deep dive into a new report on methane gas leakage in the United States. It’s no surprise we discover, once again, that methane losses are far greater than previous estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA.
The U.S. methane leaks special on February 3, 2021 is 1 hour and 37 minutes long, including few other energy headlines from around the world. Grab the full podcast Episode #140 at energytransitionshow.com. Here is a fast 15 minute sample mash-up from that show “Methane Leakage”. Give it a listen and your support.
Next week, who knows what news will break? If the virus doesn’t get us, I hope to find time to bring you a real conspiracy theory. It’s got everything, including the Russians.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for spending time here. Stay tuned for more Radio Ecoshock next week. If you can afford it, your financial help for this show is really appreciated. At this point, I am upgrading my equipment to do more video interviews and presentations. Some people only get their news from video. Find my latest climate videos here on my YouTube channel.
MORE RADIO ECOSHOCK SHOWS ON METHANE FROM PERMAFROST
Listed in reverse chronological order.
Disaster in the Making: Cascading Tipping Points & Permafrost Posted on January 8, 2020, by Radio Ecoshock
Permafrost expert Susan Natali from Woods Hole explains CO2 pouring out from the WINTER Arctic.
Abrupt Permafrost Thaw & Repetitive Heat Waves
Posted on June 5, 2019, by Radio Ecoshock
A faster permafrost thaw means even the worst scenarios underestimated the pace and severity of climate change. Canadian scientist Merritt Turetsky explains “abrupt permafrost thaw”.
Corona Climate Collapse – and The Sequel
Posted on March 4, 2020, by Radio Ecoshock
Stop worrying about the Arctic methane bomb, says scientist Michael Dyonisius.
ARCTIC EMERGENCY Global Threat
Posted on February 16, 2012, by Radio Ecoshock
Maybe we need a big burst of methane to get real climate action. Recent Russian expeditions to the Eastern Siberian coast find plumes of methane into the atmosphere. Is it worse than our own oil and coal pollution? I ask three top climate scientists: oceanographer Carlos Duarte, ice expert Peter Wadhams, and carbon-meister David Archer.
What If the Permafrost Thaws?
Posted on May 29, 2012, by Radio Ecoshock
There is more carbon frozen in far North than in all living things & the atmosphere. It has begun to thaw. Interview with Prof. Antoni Lewkowitcz and Academy of Science speech by Dr. Charles Koven. Radio Ecoshock 120530
Climate: Arctic Thermostat Blows Up
Posted on December 18, 2012, by Radio Ecoshock
The Arctic thermostat for the world is broken, with record heat & emissions in 2012. Four speakers from Arctic Methane Emergency group film: Peter Wadhams, James Hansen, Natalia Shakhova, and David Wasdell. Plus interview with AMEG member Paul Beckwith from University of Ottawa.