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28Dec 2011

(UPDATE*) NYTimes DotEarth: The rest of that Siberian continental shelf methane story

Charlie Petit

Earlier this month, as reported in this post, enterprising reporting at the American Geophysical Union meeting by the UK's and Independent's Steve Connor broke news of large burbling expanses off the Siberian coast. Methane gas released from the seabed, reported a Russian team (based in part at the University of Alaska's Int'l Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks), has increased atmospheric concentration of the gas dramatically in some regions. The news spread in headlines around the world. Connor had the basics - there is a lot of it and is has not previously been accounted for in greenhouse gas ledgers.

The news however deserved further digging, particularly to explain where the methane is coming from and the role of climate change in kicking it loose - thus posing a possibility that expected, further warming will ramp the emissions of this potent greenhouse gas higher yet.

The Independent's story took a rather lathered stance, raising the spectre of drastic and dire consequences of these zones of bubblin' CH4. Few other outlets bothered to check whether the alarm is justified.

The most diligent, and somewhat reassuring, response has come in two installments from New York Times ex-reporter, now-blogger who is labeled as an opinion writer by the Times but is a reporter still, Andrew C. Revkin at his influential DotEarth site.

  • Dec. 14: Methane Time Bomb in Arctic Seas - Apocalypse Not ; Revkin reports that while the phenomenon may be worrisome, the results and pertinent, related papers make pretty clear that whatever is going on, don't blame recent global warming. The process is a long-echo of the end of the ice age and the rise of the ocean across a former, permafrost and tundra landscape. He could not reach the AGU presentation (a poster) authors, but quoted liberally. He wrote, aiming his comment at both readers and other reporters, "So next time you see a science stunner about Arctic methane time bombs, reach out to a couple of scientists working on this gas before you run to the ramparts." As a willing rampart runner, I take that to heart.
  • Dec. 27: Leaders of Arctic Methane Project Clarify Climate Concerns ; After reaching the lead researcher in the Russian work, Revkin gets first-hand assurance that whatever some news reports may have said, the proposed reason for the methane release is not recent warming, but inundation of the former dry and frozen land, now the bed of a shallow offshore zone, by seawater. That, and discovery that such submerged permafrost may melt at a somewhat colder temperture than has been assumed, explains the high methane release now underway.

This still seems like half-reported news. It has yet to be well-dissected by anyone in widely-circulated media. Revkin made his stab, but a few more reporters ought to fill remaining holes. What exactly is believed to be happening down there?  Is the methane already methane, or is it being produced as organic material decomposes due to microbial action. Is it methane clathrates (also called hydrates) that are melting and disassociating? Both? And whether or not the region's warming is releasing this subsea methane (compounding warming's acceleration of methane production on Arctic land), what kind of impact might it have on the future pace of warming? Just because something is natural not feedback withmankind's fingerprint on it does not mean it is trivial. If there's a debate underway among scientists on the answers, so much the better as news and it merits reporting. And if there is an expert consensus, that would demand reporting as well. But somebody ought to resolve to make make the calls some time soon and find out - and then write an engaging, maybe disturbing or maybe reassuring, news feature that gives readers something to hang on to.

*UPDATE: Yesterday afternoon Revkin added another long entry at Dot Earth on Arctic methane worries. It summarizes and extracts passages from emails he received from Arctic climate experts, plus a documentary video maker, he queried for their reaction to recent, speculative news on methane releases from the shallow continental shelf off Siberia. Most tend to say that while important, the methane releases seem unlikely to push Earth close to any sort of runaway tipping point. Few indicate much certainty in that conclusion, however, and all call for increased study of the issue. An outlier is the documentary maker, who says he is stunned by any effort to minimize the risk (different from likelihood) of a non-linear climate catastrophe just from Arctic methane.

- Charlie Petit


Charlie -- happy new year. I've been sniffing around this story for months but haven't gone after it because the principal scientists won't talk specifically about their findings until their paper is published. To my mind there is no story without that - all due respect to Steve Connor and Andy.

I covered this issue in 2010 involving the same research team when there was some new data to report.


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