Warming Ocean May Be Triggering Mega Methane Leaks Off Northwest Coast

Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is one-third of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep. | credit: Brendan Philip / UW

Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is one-third of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep. | credit: Brendan Philip / UW

 

By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

SEATTLE — As the waters of the Pacific warm, methane that was trapped in crystalline form beneath the seabed is being released. And fast.

New modeling suggests that 4 million tons of this potent greenhouse gas have escaped since 1970 from the ocean depths off Washington’s coast.

“We calculate that methane equivalent in volume to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is released every year off the Washington coast,” said Evan Solomon, a University of Washington assistant professor of oceanography and co-author of the new paper, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The modeling does not indicate whether the rate of release has changed as temperatures warm, but it does strengthen the connection between ocean temperature and methane behavior.

Solomon and his colleagues first learned about the methane leaks when fishermen started sending them photographs of bubbles coming up out of the deep.

“They’re really low quality phone shots of their fish finders, but every single location they gave us was 100 percent accurate,” Solomon said.

On a cruise this past summer, Solomon and his colleagues gathered core samples from the ocean floor, about one-third of a mile deep, at the spots where the fishermen reported seeing bubbles.

And sure enough, mixed in among the sediment, were crystalized methane deposits.

“It looks like slushy ice,” Solomon said. But it certainly behaves differently. “If you took it from the sediment and lit a match or put a lighter on it, it will go into flames because of all the gas.”

Methane can exist in a gas, liquid and crystalline form. The crystalline version, or methane hydrate, occurs at cold temperatures and under pressure – conditions that can be found at certain depths of the ocean. But as deep sea waters warm, scientists believe those crystals will dissolve, releasing the methane in bubbles that can change ocean chemistry and contribute to atmospheric change once they escape at the sea’s surface.

“It’s a way to contribute to ocean acidification if you have a lot of this gas coming out and being oxidized in the water column,” Solomon said.

The methane release isn’t just happening in Washington waters, Solomon says. More sampling needs to be done but the same conditions for methane hydrate release exist from Northern California to Alaska. “So it’s not a Washington central thing,” says Solomon, who is looking forward to further study of this issue. “It should be happening off of Oregon, off of British Columbia as well.”

Other research has found similar patterns of methane release in the Atlantic and off the coast of Alaska.

“It’s a hot topic,” Solomon said.

No Doubt: Humans Responsible for Climate Change, U.N. Panel Finds

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

The United Nations has analyzed all the data, and in a new report states unequivocally that humans are the primary cause of climate change worldwide.

Compiling four potential scenarios based on varying amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced its results and released a draft of its five-year report on the state of the global climate.

“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which conducted the analysis, in a statement announcing the release of its report, Climate Change 2013: the Physical Science Basis. “The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models.”

Among the most alarming findings are that the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years, the panel said, with carbon dioxide concentrations up by 40 percent since pre-industrial times—mainly from fossil fuel emissions, as well as from emissions due to changes in net land use. About 30 percent of the carbon dioxide has been absorbed by the oceans, where it contributes to ocean acidification, the panel said.

RELATED: Study Finds Possibly Unprecedented Rate of Ocean Acidification

Climate Change: Arctic Ocean Is Acidifying Fast, Study Shows

“Observations of changes in the climate system are based on multiple lines of independent evidence,” said Qin Dahe, Co-Chair of the panel’s main working group. “Our assessment of the science finds that the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.”

Out of four potential scenarios, the panel calculated that by the end of the 21st century, global surface temperatures may very well increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius beyond what they were from 1850 to 1900, said Thomas Stocker, the working group’s other co-chair.

“Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer,” Stocker said in the statement. “As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less, although there will be exceptions.”

Changes in the climate system since 1950 “are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” the statement said, emphasizing that “warming in the climate system is unequivocal” and that “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.”

Not only are these changes taking place, but they are also accelerating, the scientists cautioned.

“As the ocean warms, and glaciers and ice sheets reduce, global mean sea level will continue to rise, but at a faster rate than we have experienced over the past 40 years,” said Co-Chair Qin Dahe.

This is not news to the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island and beyond, of course. Already numerous indigenous communities face the effects of rising sea levels, melting permafrost and other environmental effects.

 

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/09/27/no-doubt-humans-responsible-climate-change-un-panel-finds-151476

Extreme weather, more extreme greenhouse gas emissions beckon urgent activism

Patrick Bond; Source: Climate Connections

The northern hemisphere summer has just peaked and though the torrid heat is now ebbing, it is evident the climate crisis is far more severe than most scientists had anticipated. The latest report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a notoriously conservative research agency – will be debated in Stockholm next month, but no one can deny its projections: “widespread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions.”

Even worse is coming, for a giant Arctic Ocean “belch” of 50 billion tonnes of methane is inexorably escaping from seabed permafrost, according to scientists writing in the journal Nature. North Pole ice is now, at maximum summer heat, only 40 per cent as thick as it was just 40 years ago, a crisis only partially represented in the vivid image of a temporary “lake” that submerged the pole area last month.

The damage that will unfold after the burp, according to leading researchers from Cambridge and Erasmus Universities, could cost $60 trillion, about a year’s world economic output. Global warming will speed up by 15-35 years as a result.

With these revelations, it is impossible to mask the self-destructive greed of fossil-fuel firms and their carbon-addicted customers. The ruling crew in the United States, Russia and Canada will enthusiastically let oil companies exploit the soon-to-be ice-free Arctic summers with intensified drilling, joined by unprecedented bunker-fuel-burning in the newly opening shipping lanes.

Heat blowback in the US, China and Durban

But the extreme weather that necessarily results has just hit China, whose world-record CO2 emissions – mainly a result of producing junk purchased by wealthier countries which have outsourced their industrial emissions to East Asia – generate as a byproduct not only thick layers of smog in the main cities. There were also scores of heat-related deaths earlier this month. Shanghai suffered 10 straight days above 38C, with temperatures in some places high enough to use a sidewalk to fry eggs and prawns.

In the second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter (and biggest historically), the western United States is suffering a brutal drought, so severe that 86 per cent of New Mexico’s water supply evaporated, extreme wildfires broke out – this week, for example, scorching Yosemite Park’s legendary redwoods and threatening San Francisco’s water supply – while California’s Death Valley temperatures soared to 50C.

The effects are highly uneven, with environmental-justice research now proving that as climate change hits US cities, the wealthy turn up the air conditioner while the poor – and especially black and Latino people – suffer in “heat islands”. Likewise, poor people in the Himalayan mountains died in their thousands as a result of last month’s floods.

In Alaska, a source of enormous oil extraction, record temperatures in the 30s left thousands of fish dead. The effect of global warming on the oceans is to push marine life towards the poles by seven kilometres each year, as numerous species attempt to find cooler waters.

The impact here in South Africa, from East London to Durban, was a disaster for the local fishing industry last month, as billions of sardines which annually swim to shore stayed away due to warmer waters.

Can shipping survive the climate chaos it causes?

And here along the Indian Ocean, more local climate damage comes from – and is also visited upon – the shipping industry. In the world’s largest coal export site, South Africa’s Richards Bay harbour, an idiot captain of the China-bound MV Smart (sic) tried to exit the port in 10-metre swells on August 20 with a load of nearly 150,000 tonnes of coal and 1700 tonnes of oil. He promptly split the huge ship in half on a sandbank.

This followed by hours the strategic offshore sinking of a Nigeria-bound cargo ship, Kiani Satu, which had run aground a week earlier, further down the coast, close to a nature reserve and marine protected area. As plans were made to extract 300 tonnes of oil from the boat, more than 15 tonnes spilled, requiring the cleaning of more than 200 oil-coated seabirds.

The maniacs whose ships now rest at the bottom of the Indian Ocean can identify with the fly-by-night owners of the MT Phoenix, after that ship’s willful self-destruction off the Durban north coast holiday resorts exactly two years ago. Taxpayers spent $4 million pumping out 400 tonnes of oil and then towing the Phoenix out deeper to sink. A few weeks ago, that salvage operation’s contested audit resulted in the implosion of the South African Maritime Safety Authority.

These are just some surface-level indications that our shipping industry is utterly ill prepared for the rise of both overall sea levels and the “monster waves” which accompany climate change. The Columbia University Earth Institute now projects “sea-level rise of as much as six feet globally instead of two to three feet” by 2100, with higher amounts (three metres) possible if further ice sheets crack from their foundations.

As Susan Casey, wrote in her book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, “Given that 60 per cent of the world’s population lives within 30 miles of a coastline, wave science is suddenly vital science, and the experts are keenly aware that there are levees, oil rigs, shorelines, ships and millions of lives at stake.”

Her experts need to visit South Africa, because ours are apparently asleep at the wheel, as they now plan an extreme makeover of Durban’s harbour. The shipping mania that made China such a successful exporter – and wiped out so much of South Africa’s manufacturing industry – has generated vessels that can carry more than 10,000 containers (which in turn require 5800 trucks to unload), known as “super post-Panamax”. They are so named because the Panama Canal’s current limits allow only half that load, hence a $5.25 billion dig will deepen and widen the canal by 2015, with a $40 billion Chinese-funded competitor canal being considered in nearby Nicaragua.

Most ports around the world are following suit, including here where $25 billion is anticipated from national, provincial and municipal subsidies and loans for South Durban’s port/petrochemical complex – the origin of our status as the most polluted African suburb south of Nigeria. The project is mainly managed by Transnet, a huge (but hot-to-privatise) transport state-owned agency, and is the second main priority in the the African National Congress government’s National Development Plan, which claims that from handling 2.5 million containers in 2012, Durban’s productivity will soar to 20 million containers annually by 2040 – though these figures certainly don’t jell with the industry’s much more conservative projections of demand.

More examples of state planning hubris: Transnet’s $2.3 billion doubling of the Durban-Johannesburg oil pipeline is still not complete, but already massive corruption is suspected in the collusion-suffused construction industry, given that early costings were half the price. And notwithstanding their “aerotropolis” fantasies, Durban’s King Shaka International Airport and the speedy Johannesburg-Pretoria-airport Gautrain are both operating at a tiny fraction of the capacity that had been anticipated by state planners. The 2010 Soccer World Cup sports stadiums are such blatant white elephants that even arrogant local soccer boss Danny Jordaan felt compelled to apologise.

Climate denialists from Durban to Deutschland

One reason they breed is that climate is not being factored into any of these carbon-intensive white elephants, as I have learned by fruitlessly offering formal Environmental Impact Analysis objections. As a result of a critique I offered last November, Transnet’s consultants finally considered prospects that sea-level rise and intense storms might disrupt the Durban port’s new berth expansion.

But Transnet’s study on sea-level rise by Christopher Everatt and John Zietsman of ZAA Engineering Projects in Cape Town is as climate-denialist as the consultancy report last year by the South African Council on Scientific and Industrial Research’s Roy Van Ballegooyen. I do understand that – like the dreaded AIDS-denialism of a decade ago – the allegation of climate-denialism is a strong insult these days. But what else would you call a November 2012 report (mainly by Everatt) that cites five studies to claim we will suffer only a maximum 0.6 metre maximum sea-level rise this century, but based on data from 1997, 2004, 2006 and 2008 reports. Five years old information is, in this field, ridiculously outdated.

In South Africa, de facto climate denialists are now led by a South African Communist Party leader: minister of trade and industry Rob Davies. Last week, Davies pushed through cabinet approval to build yet another coal-fired power plant plus permission to frack the extremely water-sensitive Karoo, “Land of the Great Thirst” in the original inhabitants’ San language.

Awful precedents Davies tactfully avoided mentioning include the massive environmental damage and the corruption, labour-relations and socio-ecological crises at South Africa’s main coal-fired powerplant construction site, Eskom’s $10 billion Medupi generator which at 4800 megawatts will be the world’s third largest. Medupi was meant to be generating power in 2011, but due to ongoing conflict, may finally be finished only in mid-2014.

Eskom’s main beneficiary, also unmentioned by Davies, is BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining house, a firm at the centre of South Africa’s crony-capitalist nexus dating to apartheid days. Eskom now subsidises this Australian company with $1.1 billion annually by gifting it the world’s cheapest electricity.

Another de facto climate denialist is the German development aid minister, Dirk Niebel, an opponent of Ecuadoran civil society’s plan to save the Yasuni National Park from oil exploitation. According toNiebel, “Refraining from oil drilling alone is not going to help in forest preservation.” Of course not, but it could have been a vital step for Germany to make a downpayment on its huge climate debt to the victims of extreme weather.

The Yasuni campaign to “leave the oil under the soil” is excellent, and while there, deep in the Amazon on the Peruvian border two years ago, I witnessed the Oilwatch network mobilising to expand the idea(even to Durban where oil prospecting recently began offshore). Oilwatch generated a “Yasunization” strategy for other fossil fuels, also promoted by the Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade scholar-activist network based in Barcelona. Network leaders Joan Martinez-Alier and Nnimmo Bassey are also heartbroken at Yasuni’s apparent demise.

The government of Rafael Correa – trained in the US as an economist – always had the intention to sell Yasuni into the global carbon markets, a self-defeating strategy given the markets’ tendency to both fraud and regular crashing; carbon prices today only about a quarter of what they were two years ago.

So now, because the erratic Correa doesn’t have his hands on the cash yet, in part because he failed to address world civil society to put pressure on governments, Ecuador’s PetroAmazonas and China’s PetroOriental will go ahead and drill. A fresh campaign has been launched to halt the extraction, starting with one letter after another from Accion Ecologica, the eco-feminist lobby that initiated the project, joined by the eloquent leader of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, Carlos Perez Guartambel.

Climate activist counter-power gathers

Yasuni is a critical place to draw the line, for it is probably the world’s most biodiverse site. But there are other vulnerable points of counter-power, too, as across the world, many more defenders of nature come forward against rapacious fossil-fuel industry attacks.

South Africa has not been particularly climate-conscious, because the thousands of recent social protests are mainly directed against a state and capitalists which deny immediate needs, from municipal services to wages. Still, in Johannesburg, the Anglo American Corporation and Vedanta coal-fired power plant witnessed a protest of 1000 community and environmental activists last month.

Surprisingly, a Pew Research Centre poll found that 48 per cent of South Africans worry “global climate change” is a “major threat”, followed by “China’s power and influence” (40 per cent) and “international financial instability” (34 per cent). Across the world, 54 per cent of people Pew asked cited climate change as a major threat, the highest of any answer (in second place, 52 per cent said “international financial stability”). Only 40 per cent of the US populace agreed, putting it at seventh place.

Yet even in the belly of the beast, more people seem to be mobilising, and there are growing connectivities in the spirit that what happens in Yasuni is terribly important to the First Nations activists of western Canada (one of the finest blog sites to make these links is http://climate-connections.org/).

For example, fossil fuel projects have been fought hard in recent weeks by forces as diverse as Idaho’sNez Perce Native Americans, Idle No More and Wild Idaho Rising Tide; by Nebraska farmers; by activists from the filthy oil city of Houston who are contesting a new coal terminal; and in Utah where not only have conservationists sued to halt drilling of an 800,000-acre tar sands field stretching into Colorado and Wyoming, but 50 activists physically blocked tar sand mining and construction at two sites last month.

350.org’s Bill McKibben recently mentioned the “Summerheat” rebirth of US climate activism, “from the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where the first US tar-sands mine has been proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of rural Ohio”.

The growing movement has had results, says McKibben, in part through civil disobedience: “In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of US institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas.”

This is encouraging partly because summertime is a lull when it comes to challenging power in many parts of the world. Meanwhile, our political winter was mostly spent wondering whether the crucial Congress of South African Trade Unions would remain aligned to the government or split in half. The more enlightened wing would logically move towards environmental, community and social struggles, leaving behind the likes of Rob Davies, just as US progressives (should) have shed any last illusions about slick Barack Obama.

But not far from Durban, 100 years ago next month, Mahatma Gandhi began preparing a non-violent mass assault on a white-owned coal mine in support of both Indian women’s right to cross a regional border and workers’ wage demands. The idea known as satyagraha (truth force) went from theory to practice, as militant passive defiance gained concessions that, 80 years later, helped free South Africa from apartheid. This time, there’s no 80-year window; we all have to rise to the challenge as fast as do the thermometer and the greenhouse gas emissions.

Will It or Won’t It Cost $60 Trillion? Climate Change Unknowns Dog Methane Question

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

Debate has erupted in the scientific community as a study puts the economic cost of a mega-burst of methane that could be emitted by melting Siberian permafrost over the next decade or two at $60 trillion—about equal to the entire world’s economic output in 2012.

The study, published on July 25 in the journal Nature, based its economic price tag on the assumption that a 50-gigatonne reservoir of methane on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf “is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly,” the paper said. This will lead to higher atmospheric concentrations of methane, which will accelerate global warming as well as Arctic ice melt, wrote the three authors, Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope and Peter Wadhams.

“The ramifications will be felt far from the poles,” they said. Further, the article made the point that the business opportunities being slavered over by oil and resource companies to the tune of copy00 billion are dwarfed by this potential cost.

At issue, besides the question of whether we can expect such a methane “pulse,” is how quickly the permafrost will melt relative to how long the methane—which does not stick around as long as carbon dioxide—will last in the atmosphere. Those critiquing the study say that the greenhouse gas will not build up faster than methane dissipates, which takes about two years. In contrast, carbon dioxide, the other potent greenhouse gas, can linger for centuries, a recent study found. And melting permafrost has also been a concern in Alaska.

RELATED:

Antarctic Mud Tells Tales of Ancient Ocean Rise

Melting Permafrost Could Release Greenhouse Gases: NYT

Regardless of how much the dollar amount is, said co-author Wadhams, who heads the Polar ocean physics group at Cambridge University, in a rebuttal to the initial critique in the Washington Post, “the planetary cost of Arctic warming far outstrips the benefits (from shipping and oil exploration) that have been talked about so confidently by some politicians.”

The naysayer, Jason Samenow, set off a chain reaction of sorts as expert after expert came forward to concur that the methane-belch scenario is not that probable.

“The paper says that their scenario is ‘likely.’ I strongly disagree,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, to LiveScience.com. He explained that summer sea ice has nearly disappeared before, during previous warm geological eras, and did not result in the melting of methane hydrates trapped in permafrost as predicted by Wadhams and his team.

However, Wadhams said that today’s factors are different.

“The mechanism which is causing the observed mass of rising methane plumes in the East Siberian Sea is itself unprecedented, and the scientists who dismissed the idea of extensive methane release in earlier research were simply not aware of the new mechanism that is causing it,” wrote Wadhams, an oceanographer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “But once the ice disappears, as it has done, the temperature of the water can rise significantly, and the heat content reaching the seabed can melt the frozen sediments at a rate that was never before possible.”

Either way, the current models being used to calculate climate change may be missing some key variables, simply because they cannot be known until they happen. A rash of recent studies have shown how aspects of climate change influence other factors that compound and cloud the issue.

“What is missing from the equation is a worldwide perspective on Arctic change,” wrote the paper’s three authors. “More modeling is needed to understand which regions and parts of the world economy will be most vulnerable.”

The Antarctic is not immune from such melt either. As this debate erupted, the Los Angeles Times was reporting on another study, this one published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, that found melt rates of buried ice in the Garwood Valley “that shifted from a creeping annual rate of about 40,000 cubic feet per year over six milleniums, to more than 402,000 cubic feet last year alone,” the newspaper reported on July 24.

“We think what we’re seeing here is sort of a crystal ball of what coastal Antarctica is going to experience,” said geologist Joseph Levy, of the University of Texas, lead author of the study, to the Los Angeles Times. “When you start warming buried ice and other permafrost in the dry valley, it’s going to start to melt and it’s going to start melting in a style that’s consistent with permafrost thaw in the Arctic.”

Regardless of how much the melting permafrost will cost economically, other manifestations of climate change are already being felt, especially by Indigenous Peoples. Even if methane does suddenly get unleashed into the atmosphere, could damage be mitigated if we were to harness it for energy?

 

Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/26/will-it-or-wont-it-cost-60-trillion-climate-change-unknowns-dog-methane-question-150614