Climate Emergency Institute
Climate Science Library
Max Wilbert, USA
Original Post: Jan. 14, 2012
Methane is a substance that we take for granted – it burns on our range tops and heats our homes as the main component of natural gas, and is the subject of countless childhood jokes. But new research is showing that this misunderstood gas poses a very real and imminent threat to our health – one that is just beginning to ramp up.
You see, methane is a greenhouse gas 100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. And scientific studies are showing that the gas has begun to bubble and hiss out of oceans and soils in the Arctic, leaking (and sometimes gushing) into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.
This may seem like a remote issue, but it has global implications. The warming trend, driven in large part by the burning of fossil fuels and destruction of natural habitats worldwide, is the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. The scientific literature is clear that warming is already contributing to crop failures, flooding, wildfires, storms, and more. Food prices are at their highest level since the 1970’s.
In places like Pakistan, eastern Australia, Thailand, and New England, rivers jump their banks and scour the landscape. In places like China, New Mexico, Texas, western Australia, and Russia, drought desiccates every living thing, and wildfires sweep in behind. Environmental refugees crowd cities around the world. Species are already being pushed to the brink of extinction, and beyond. The very air we breathe has become a medium of pollution, of toxic waste dumping.
This brings us back to methane.
Along the margins of the continental plates, under high pressure and low temperature, methane gas naturally crystallizes into what are called methane hydrates - imagine a glassy lattice of ice surrounding molecules of methane, locking it in place and stabilizing it in these oceans. Most methane hydrates are found in waters more than 1500 feet deep, but in the frigid Arctic oceans, they are found in much shallower waters – some only 150 feet deep. Methane hydrates can also be found beneath permafrost soils across the Arctic tundra. Between the ocean and permafrost varieties, these deposits are estimated to contain four times the amount of carbon that is already in the atmosphere – a massive concentration. And as these soils begin to melt, and these shallow seas begin to warm, hydrates are beginning to be released.
In 2008 and 2009, researchers from the University of Alaska travelled across the East Siberia Arctic Shelf – a region of shallow sea between Russia and Alaska more than 2 million square kilometers in size (think Mexico or Saudi Arabia)- sampling the atmosphere and oceanic concentrations of greenhouse gases. What they found surprised them. Levels of methane averaged more than double the Arctic normal – in some areas, more than quadruple.
Their data suggests that more than 1.1 million tons of methane is being released from the shelf each year – already outpacing methane releases from the peat bogs and swamps of northern Russia, which had been considered the largest source of methane in the northern hemisphere.
“The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount (previously assumed to be) coming out of the entire world’s oceans,” said lead researcher Natalia Shakhova. “The release to atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 or 4 times.”
The researchers concluded that methane was being released as a cap of permafrost soils underlying the ocean began to melt – a direct result of man-made global warming. Suddenly this mysterious substance leapt to scientific prominence around the world.
The danger here is a positive feedback loop in the climate system – as more methane is released, the climate warms, especially in the area close to the methane release. This warms the ocean and the permafrost, which allows more methane to escape, which contributes to further warming and accelerates the cycle.
According to a National Science Foundation statement released after the publication of the data in March 2010, this could trigger “abrupt climate warming.” A 2009 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that if the earth warms by 3°C (about the mid range of possible scenarios), this feedback could add a further 17% warming effect, pushing more species, more people, more ecosystems, and more tipping points to the brink.
Methane hydrates may be a new concept to the average person, but for many years they have been the focus of a massive research effort by the United States, Japan, multinational energy corporations, and nations around the world. That’s because methane is the main constituent of natural gas – an important fossil fuel used for transportation, cooking and heating homes, and industry. And hydrates contain a lot of methane.
The crushing weight of the ocean pressurizes methane into hydrate like oxygen into a SCUBA tank. One cubic foot of methane contained in hydrate expands to 164 cubic feet of methane if it is brought to the surface. That calculus has energy corporations foaming at the mouth, ready to exploit this new source of energy. Governments around the world are betting on hydrates too – Japan has invested $100 million in hopes of getting commercial production up and running by 2016. The US Dept. of Energy and the UN Environment Program are involved in research as well; an experimental well operated by Conoco-Philips at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, was tested in 2009 and 2010.
Methane Hydrates, “could provide up to 10% to 15% of global natural gas production within the next two decades,” according to a 2009 paper in Environmental Research Letters entitled Gas Hydrates: Entrance to a Methane Age or Climate Threat? This makes them one of the “dominant factor(s) in estimating unconventional energy resources,” according to Dr. William Dillon of the USGS.
But these fuels are expensive, dangerous, and difficult to obtain. Why are these governments and corporations going after them?
Since the 1950s, petroleum engineers have noted that oil (or coal or natural gas) production for a typical field follows a bell curve: production is slow at first as capacity is brought online, then speeds up to a peak, which marks when half of all the oil has been extracted. After that, no more growth is possible, and the production begins to decline as the wells dry up. This pattern can also be observed on a larger scale. United States oil production (lower 48 states) peaked in 1970, and has declined steadily ever since. Recent studies by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) show that conventional oil production peaked in 2005.
That is why billions of dollars are being invested worldwide in “unconventional” sources of energy – tar sands fuel, hydro-fracturing (fracking) or shale natural gas, and deepwater oil. These fuels are becoming increasingly important to the global economy. Tar sands fuel alone, from the vast Alberta Tar Sands project, supplies more than 10% of the US oil supply. Traditional sources of oil and natural gas are drying out, all over the world. All that’s left is the dirtiest fuel of the lot. This one-time energy bonanza is drawing to a close.
Petroleum engineers around the world are familiar with methane hydrates because they often cause trouble in pipelines, blocking the free flow of oil. They are also an issue in deepwater oil drilling – rapidly expanding methane hydrates shooting up the pipes led to the massive explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil platform that caused the Gulf oil spill in April 2010. Hydrates also stymied efforts to stop the flow of oil, clogging a containment cap that was lowered onto the leaking well.
Natural gas is often touted as a “transitional fuel source,” an option less harmful than oil to help us get to clean energy future. Traditional studies claim that natural gas releases between 25 and 50% less carbon dioxide than coal or oil. But this green street cred has been called into question. A scientific paper released in 2011 by the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that using natural gas instead of coal or oil may actually increase warming in the short term, and lead to only minimal emissions reductions over a 90-year timescale.
A new method of drilling through natural gas-containing shale formations with a process called ‘hydro-fracturing’ or ‘fracking’ was developed by Halliburton Corporation and has spread throughout the United States. The incredibly destructive nature of this practice was brought into the public eye by an Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary entitled Gasland, which showed the impacts on groundwater supplies and the undermining of local democracies.
The jury is still out on hydrate production, but it can be assumed that unique challenges posed by drilling in deep, cold oceans, dealing with the potentially explosive expansion of methane hydrates, and shipping these fuels to market all adds up to a higher carbon price tag than conventional natural gas production, which itself is not exactly sustainable.
But more disconcerting are the unknown dangers of drilling for methane hydrates. Scientists believe that massive releases of methane hydrates are associated with several extinction events, including one that wiped out much of marine life 55 million years ago. Could drilling for this substance lead to uncontrolled releases of methane? The evidence seems to point towards no, but in a world where millions are already affected by climate change, and billions more are on track for trouble, can we risk it?