You should be afraid

This could be bad. For years I’ve been hearing about the nightmare scenario of global ocean warming rising to a level that triggers the release of methane hydrates locked up deep in the ocean, which then lead to a major accumulation of greenhouse gases. It basically tips over the rate of warming from one regime into another, faster period of heating, very abruptly.

Well, guess what

Vast methane plumes have been discovered boiling up from the seafloor of the Arctic ocean on the continental slope of the Laptev Sea by a dream team of international scientists. Over the last decade a warming tongue of Atlantic ocean water has been flowing along the Siberian Arctic ocean’s continental slope destabilizing methane ice, hypothesize the team of Swedish, Russian and American scientists. The research team will take a series of measurements across the Siberian seas to attempt to understand and quantify the methane release and predict the effect of this powerful greenhouse gas on global and Arctic warming. Because the Siberian Arctic contains vast stores of methane ices and organic carbon that may be perturbed by the warming waters and Arctic climate, Arctic ocean and Siberian sea methane release could accelerate and intensify Arctic and global warming.

It’s like humans are blithely giving the little nudges that start an avalanche, and then afterwards we’ll look at each other and say “I didn’t do it, it was deep ocean methane!” Or rather, we’ll try to say that while struggling to keep from drowning or cooking.


  1. marko says

    Ha ha, those stupid Easter Islanders must have known they they were making their environment uninhabitable and they just kept on cutting down those trees.

    I am genuinely afraid, what can we do?

  2. says


    Pretty much nothing that can be done at this point. The people with the power to change this don’t have enough power to stem the overwhelming flow of money that keeps this problem from propagating. For the lust of another couple million dollars, our world is being destroyed by people who can afford to lose that money. It’s all big money interests, oil and gas, mining, and waste from corporations whose greed overrides their concern for the future. These are people who live for themselves, now. Fuck everyone who comes after.

  3. tuibguy says

    Methane is trapped both under the ice and under the perma-frost. That big hole that popped like a zit from the earth in Siberia? Now it looks as though the pressure of the methane bubble under the surface found its escape route through thawing earth and ice and there are more where that came from.

    Is it too late? I hope not – but if we allow all of these megatonnes of methane to escape into the atmosphere it well could lead to a faster distaster than we could possibly master.

  4. opposablethumbs says

    I wish those with the power to make whole governments drag their heels (e.g. rich Rethugs and the rest of the ultra-rich everywhere) were actually among the first to experience the effects, but sadly their wealth will insulate them until they or their children are among the last.

    How long do we have? The poorest are suffering already.

  5. jaybee says

    Someone is going to say — look, we’ve just unleashed a new source of free energy! You should be thanking us!

  6. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I’m pretty sure we are past the tipping point. There’s no stopping the effects as they continue to snowball (if you’ll pardon the expression). The best we can hope for now is mitigating the long term damage to the ecosystem.

    Unfortunately, as a species, we don’t seem to really care about the ecosystem that supports us. We think of humans and humans only. We’ll probably experience a significant, global population decline, and it won’t be pretty, but it will probably be for the better of every other species bigger than a cockroach.

  7. says

    I googled “methane clathrate” and found several articles by people hypothesizing what a fine fossil fuel it will make. You know, we can drive off in methane-powered SUVs into the sunset of our very own Permian-style exctinction. :(

  8. raven says

    I’m pretty sure we are past the tipping point. There’s no stopping the effects as they continue to snowball (if you’ll pardon the expression).

    We are. Climate change is slow and the momentum we have built up will continue it for centuries, even if the CO2 rise stopped right now.

    There isn’t one tipping point. There are many and we don’t even know them all. In the arctic, melt ponds which absorb sunlight are common on the sea ice. Which is gotten smaller. With more open water, waves can get going and fragment the ice. Open water absorbs more sunlight than ice.

    There are a lot of positive feedback loops and they are operating now.

  9. katiemarshall says

    I work with people who do field work in the Canadian sub-Arctic (north of 60, but below the treeline). They tell me that at their field site, all summer long, they watched methane bubbling up through an enormous lake as the permafrost melted. Imagining that on the scale of continents rather frightens me.

  10. danl. says

    Unlike the major positions of modern climate science (the Earth is warming dangerously and we’re causing the warming), there is genuine controversy among scientists working in the field over whether we are in imminent danger of a catastrophic Arctic methane release.

    As always, the place to go for nuanced, in-depth discussion of such topics by real scientists is RealClimate:

  11. says

    Tragedy of the common planet. Everybody is too worried about “I got mine!”, about artificial things like “economic growth”, the lie that the Earth’s resources are infinite. We live under the delusion that humans are exempt or outside of nature and not subject to the same things every other species eventually faces (e.g. overpopulation, starvation, catastrophic envrionement change, extinction, etc.).

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    First I imagined a group of fanatical eco-terrorists trying to ameliorate the situation by assassinating the Koch Brothers. Then I realized that their heirs – no doubt including numerous propaganda institutions as well as family members – will probably continue their planetocidal crimes with even more energy after receiving big injections of cash.

    IOW – what Kevin @ # 4 said.

  13. says

    @anteprepro #11

    This is why we should have eaten the rich when we had the chance.

    -If you didn’t notice, the present wave of greenhouse gas accumulation began when we were eating the rich (the 1950s and 1960s). And Hugo Chavez, famous eater of the rich, continued Venezuela’s toxic legacy of dangerously high fuel subsidies. Eating the rich has nothing to do with curbing greenhouse gas accumulation. Also, does anyone here know if this Cato Institute calculator is accurate?

  14. says

    A catastrophic melt of methane clathrates is believed to have been, at least in part, what caused the Permian-Triassic extinction, aka The Great Dying. It killed 96% of all sea-based life (the only mass extinction to have seriously affected the oceans) and the only extinction event that killed off insects. And that seems to be where we are heading now.

    How long, do you think, before the uber wealthy start saying, “It is too late to fix anything, so damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead”?

  15. azhael says

    This is one of those rare moments when apathetic depression comes in rather useful…

  16. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Enpoletus Harding
    Thanks for an easy one. Nothing the Cato Institute says is ever accurate.

  17. grumpypathdoc says

    In the immortal words of Private William Hudson: “Game over man, game over!”
    Gregory in Seattle @ #19- That’s probably exactly how they will react; I don’t think they have an orbiting space station, a la “Elysium” that they can retreat to. And the rapture thing also comes into play.

  18. unclefrogy says

    I do not know if it is useful or not but it is a personal danger for me.
    We all do seem to be going through one of those events of great change similar to what the Mayans or the people of Angkor did but we are demonstrating the real power of industrialization to effect the entire planet .
    It is too bad I can no longer escape into denial and ignorance of the reality and must watch this slow-motion train wreak

    uncle frogy

  19. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    It is actually a misunderstanding to say “Game over.” That presumes you can quit the game. You can’t. We either find a way to stop making things worse or we continue to make things worse–perhaps much worse. Yes, it may be to late to avoid severe consequences. Our actions, however, still decide how severe those consequences will be.

  20. anteprepro says

    Enopoletus Harding:

    . Eating the rich has nothing to do with curbing greenhouse gas accumulation.

    lolwut? The biggest producers of this shit are big unregulated industries in the U.S. and China. And the people stopping regulations are wealthy Republican corporatists. What the fuck are you on about?

  21. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Opposablethumbs, Well, we are already beginning to see some early effects. Almost certainly, climate change is contributing to the drought in the western US, and there’s evidence of more impulsive rain events.

    One thing to keep in mind here is that climate change is not occurring in isolation–increased population and climate change will both increase pressure on fragile systems. It is a question of what critical system breaks first. I think we’ll start to see some significant degradation by 2030 (possibly an ice-free Arctic in Summer and the disruption that will entail), and by 2050-2070, you’ll see a crest in human population at about 10 billion and probably some severe pressure.

    One thing to consider–if people start really thinking the situation is hopeless, things could degrade really quickly. Humans don’t do well without hope.

  22. says

    @ a_ray_in_dilbert_space #21
    -I find such blanket ad hominem condemnations unhelpful.
    @ anteprepro #26
    -If you don’t find your previous comment defensible, then just say so. I don’t see how this comment of yours is at all relevant to your previous one or my reply to it. Nothing in your #26 can be construed to be in defense of your #21.
    @ azhael #20
    -No. Depression is never helpful.

  23. embraceyourinnercrone says

    If you want to read a good (my opinion only) and informative book about this I suggest “With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change” by Fred Pearce. It covers a lot of ground, although if you want in-depth information you will have to take it as a starting point. It also explains a bit about how some of these tipping points and climate systems are interconnected (Example: The dust storms in the Sahara have a big effect on the rains in the Amazon, fewer dust storms in one place mean possible drought in the other)

    It may also scare the crap out of you, it did me.

    FYI he also wrote “When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century” in 2007

  24. robro says

    I read an article in Scientific American…so you know pop science not real science…probably 10 years ago about the risks of methane hydrates in a warming ocean. I searched for the article but can’t find it, but there are a number of Sci-Am newsy articles from 2010 and even one from 2006 about this. So the issue concerns have been discussed for a while. The news isn’t that there’s risk, but that the gas is bubbling up.

    I believe the story started with a description of the Lake Nyos disaster. Different mechanism, I assume, but similar nightmare.

    The article was also concerned that even minor warming could destabilize clathrates so that some secondary environmental event, for example a major earthquake on the Juan De Fuca plate, could cause a massive and sudden release of methane.

    I’m going to play “Hurt” and deep breath for a while.

  25. throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble says

    This is giving me a panic attack. :( The writing is on the wall… I’m wondering why I’m living through this moment as opposed to all others, and it makes me feel like running, screaming, giving up, clawing at the walls… I think I’ll spend a night or a week with the fuse box switched completely off… Fuck.

  26. anteprepro says

    Again, Enopoletus Harding, what the fuck are you on about? What the fuck do you think you are actually refuting and what the fuck is your fucking point?

    Also this:

    -No. Depression is never helpful.

    Not fucking cool.

  27. brett says

    We can buy time by pumping sulfates into the atmosphere if necessary, although that should be an absolute last resort after other forms of adaptation and emissions curbs (it could seriously screw with rainfall patterns). But if the methane despots in the permafrost really are starting to get loose, even if it takes a century, it’s going to be a tough century.

    I don’t think it’s the End of Civilization, but it would be bad for a lot of human beings, and particularly the poorest humans in the weakest states. The US can spend trillions of dollars in adaptation procedures over decades if necessary, but most poor countries can’t afford to do that. Poor Bangladesh . . .


    Someone is going to say — look, we’ve just unleashed a new source of free energy! You should be thanking us!

    The sad thing is that if you could somehow burn the methane versus simply letting it go into the atmosphere, it would be much better in terms of preventing climate change (methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2).