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Methane's Time Bomb:

18 March 2009

The Arctic Circle is a vast region of frozen earth and sea, and concerns about
global warming have opened the world's eyes to the danger of methane present in
Arctic sub sea permafrost.
Methane gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon that is colorless and odorless.
With a half life of only twelve years, methane degrades to carbon dioxide, a
greenhouse gas. Also a greenhouse gas, methane is twenty times more effective at
holding solar radiation than carbon dioxide, making it potentially catastrophic.

As a warmer climate thaws Arctic soils, as much as 55 billion tons of methane


could be released from beneath Siberian permafrost alone, and that would amount to
10 times the amount currently in the atmosphere. The permafrost has grown porous,
and already the shelf sea has become a source of methane passing into the
atmosphere. Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian
permafrost seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the
methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelvefold. The result
would be catastrophic global warming.

Methane forms naturally in two ways: thermogenically and biogenically. Thermogenic


methane is a product of time, high pressure and high temperature. Pockets of
organic material deep within the earth's crust are heated and crushed over long
periods of time resulting in the formation of natural gas and oil. Biogenic
methane is the metabolite of bacteria that feed on decayed organic matter. The
greatest amount of methane in Arctic permafrost comes from biogenic production.
Bacteria in the permafrost layer underneath the Arctic sea are so well adapted to
their environment that they produce methane year round.

To better understand the menace of Arctic thaw releasing methane, we should


examine how methane exists there in such great quantities. The process by which
methane becomes trapped in permafrost is two fold. Thermogenic methane is under
great pressure and is less dense than water. When given the opportunity it will
rise upward along fault lines or through porous material. At the permafrost layer,
the bubbles stop, inhibited by the frozen mass above. Biogenic methane is produced
in situ within the permafrost layer. Slight temperature increases cause the
permafrost layer to become porous, allowing bubbles of gas to escape.

Methane levels in the atmosphere have tripled since preindustrial times. Human
activities, including rice cultivation, cattle raising and coal mining, account
for about 70% of releases, according to recent studies. Natural sources, like
tropical wetlands and termites, make up the rest. Nowhere is the evidence of a
heating planet more dramatic than in the polar regions. Over the last 50 years,
the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Last summer, for the
first time in recorded history, the North Pole could be circumnavigated. Ice
sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica are melting rapidly.

Today, 20% of Earth's land surface is locked up in a deep freeze. But scientists
predict that air temperature in the Arctic is likely to rise as much as 6 °C, or
10.8 °F, by the end of the century. That is expected to boost the emission of
carbon compounds from soils.

If only 1% of permafrost carbon were to be released each year, that could double
the globe's annual carbon emissions, and create a tipping point for positive
feedback, this is a process in which warming spurs emissions, which in turn
generate more heat, in an uncontrollable cycle.

When this cycle reaches a critical point, gas hydrates stored in the Arctic ocean
floor, hard clumps of ice and methane, conserved by freezing temperatures and high
pressure will grow unstable and release massive amounts of methane into the
atmosphere. In the permafrost bottom of the Arctic ocean, enormous stores of gas
hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of
the ice and methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons.

Data from offshore drilling in the Arctic ocean, studied by experts at the Alfred
Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, also suggest that the situation
has grown critical. The data show that the submarine permafrost is perilously
close to thawing. Three to 12 kilometers from the Siberian coast, the temperature
of sea sediment was -1 to -1.5 degrees Celsius, just below freezing. Permafrost on
land, though, was as cold as -12.4 degrees Celsius. That's a drastic difference
and the best proof of a critical thermal status of the submarine permafrost.

The East Siberian Sea is already bubbling with methane, and when these methane
emissions from the Arctic speed up, it will cause really serious climate
consequences, it may already to late for humanity too reverse this trend.