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Should We Care About Methane From Thawing Rocks In Siberia?

Warmer temperatures in the Arctic are leading to the release of methane from limestone formations.

Methane, the primary component of what is incorrectly known as “natural gas,” is a powerful greenhouse gas. When released into the atmosphere, it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but its heat trapping properties are 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Which is to say, pumping more methane into the skies is a really, really bad thing for a planet that is already overheating.

Overheating, of course, is a relative term. There is little chance the Earth will get so hot it will explode like the planet Alderaan in the original Star Wars movie. No, hotter or colder, the Earth will continue to be a tiny, irrelevant dot on the far edge of the galaxy. The only thing that will change is that human beings will no longer be able to live on its surface because their bodies will not be able to survive those hotter temperatures.

The planet really takes no position on human existence. In fact, the demise of humans might come as a welcome relief, considering how we have exploited our celestial home. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you believe Hillary Clinton operates a global child pornography network out of the basement of a pizza restaurant, or whether you favor the angry Old Testament God or the loving New Testament God, none of that will matter because there won’t be anyone left to care.

So let’s assume that releasing more methane will not be a good thing for humans. The good news is, gigatons of the stuff is locked into the permafrost that covers large swathes of the Earth, much of it in Arctic regions such as Siberia. The bad news is, rising global temperatures are causing much of that permafrost to melt, which will release methane that has been sequestered away for hundreds of millions of years into the atmosphere.

Thawing Limestone

And as bad as that may be — and it’s really bad — new research by three geologists finds that the heat wave that hit Siberia last year did something that may be far worse. It thawed limestone formations hundreds of miles long. According to the Washington Post, that thawing releases hydrocarbons and gas hydrates from reservoirs both below and within the permafrost, making it “much more dangerous” than past studies have suggested.

Nikolaus Froitzheim, who teaches at the Institute of Geosciences at the University of Bonn, says he and two colleagues used satellite maps that measured intense methane concentrations over two “conspicuous elongated areas” of limestone — stripes that were several miles wide and up to 375 miles long — in the Taymyr Peninsula and the area around northern Siberia. The study has been published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Surface temperatures during the heat wave in 2020 soared to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1979-2000 norms. In the long stripes, there is hardly any soil, and vegetation is scarce, the study says. So the limestone crops out of the surface. As the rock formations warm up, cracks and pockets opened up, releasing methane that had been trapped inside.

“We would have expected elevated methane in areas with wetlands,” Froitzheim says. “But these were not over wetlands but on limestone outcrops. There is very little soil in these. It was really a surprising signal from hard rock, not wetlands.” The carbonates in the outcroppings date back 541 million years to the Paleozoic era, according to the US Geological Survey.

Not Good News

“It’s intriguing. It’s not good news if it’s right,” said Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, formerly known as the Woods Hole Research Center. “Nobody wants to see more potentially nasty feedbacks and this is potentially one. What we do know with quite a lot of confidence is how much carbon is locked up in the permafrost. It’s a big number and as the Earth warms and permafrost thaws, that ancient organic matter is available to microbes for microbial processes and that releases CO2 and methane. If something in the Arctic is going to keep me up at night, that’s still what it is.” He says the new research suggests further study is needed.

The biggest sources of methane in the world are agricultural, such as rice growing, and leaks and flares from oil and gas operations, such as in the US Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico where production has soared in the past decade. But Froitzheim says that in the permafrost “the question is: how much will come, and we don’t really know.”

Normally the frozen permafrost acts as a cap, sealing methane below. It also can lock up gas hydrates, which are crystalline solids of frozen water that contain huge amounts of methane. Unstable at normal sea-level pressure and temperatures, gas hydrates can be dangerously explosive as temperatures rise.

The study said that gas hydrates in the Earth’s permafrost are estimated to contain 20 gigatons of carbon. That’s a small percentage of all carbon trapped in the permafrost, but the continued warming of gas hydrates could cause disruptive and rapid releases of methane from rock outcrops.

“It will be important to continue to compare methane in future years to really pinpoint how much additional geologic methane is being emitted to the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws,” Ted Schuur, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Northern Arizona University, tells the Washington Post. “We know the heat wave was real, but whether it triggered the methane release cannot be determined without additional years of methane data.”

Wisdom In Comments

Often the comments articles get are as valuable as the articles themselves. Here is a comment by Across The Pond to the Washington Post story:

“I never thought I’d be glad to be childless, but for a myriad of reasons I find myself extremely relieved that I have not brought children and beyond them, grandchildren into this world. We live on the most beautiful planet in our knowledge, live alongside the most eclectic of species, on a planet which provides every single thing humanity needs to survive and, indeed, thrive.But humanity has inexplicably decided that spending billions on wars and weapons is our main priority, as opposed to saving our world. The rich get richer and head into space, as the poor helplessly slide further into the chasm of debt, hunger, early death, preventable death, unaffordable healthcare, no clean water, education etc. We are the most stupid, ignorant, selfish, cruel and lazy species on this planet. We had it all, but have thrown it away in the most senseless acts of vandalism and self harm imaginable.What’s unforgivable is that we have doomed both further generations and the most beautiful landscapes and creatures who are unfortunate enough to live in the same world as us.”

Of course, that thoughtful, insightful comment couldn’t pass unchallenged by the Fox News crowd. Here is Mark Stephenson’s response: “He is a worthless, ignorant, vile troll. Click ignore.” And that, gentle reader, is precisely why we, the human species, will find a way to become extinct sooner rather than later. When that happens, our epitaph will be simple. “Too stupid to live,” is all it will say.

 
 
 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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