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Earth Science

Russian Scientist Discovers Giant Arctic Methane Plumes 236

Posted by samzenpus
from the warm-it-up dept.
thomst writes "Russian scientist Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks revealed in an interview with The Independent that his team discovered 'powerful and impressive seeping structures (of Methane gas) more than 1,000 metres in diameter' during their survey of the Arctic Ocean earlier this year. 'I was most impressed by the sheer scale and the high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them,' Semiletov told The Independent's Steve Connor. This finding is important because methane is estimated to be 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and it could indicate that global warming is about to accelerate dramatically."
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Russian Scientist Discovers Giant Arctic Methane Plumes

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  • Sorry! (Score:5, Funny)

    by nullnick (1409223) on Friday December 16, 2011 @06:52AM (#38395604)
    It was the dog!
  • by DamonHD (794830) <d@hd.org> on Friday December 16, 2011 @06:54AM (#38395614) Homepage

    In this case it seems that most of the methane is locked up far deeper than will be affected by rising temperatures for the foreseeable future.

    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2011/2011EO490014.shtml [agu.org]

    So, not good, but maybe not as bad as appears at first blush, thankfully...

    Rgds

    Damon

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 16, 2011 @07:05AM (#38395662)

      Hopefully they're right. This older review [realclimate.org] from Real Climate comes to the same conclusion.

      But we'll know for sure one way or another in a couple of years, by watching the atmospheric methane concentrations
      .

      • by DamonHD (794830)

        I suspect that it'll to take a lot longer than a couple of years to know for sure: a couple of decades maybe.

        Rgds

        Damon

      • What both of those studies say is that the methane release is not caused by global warming.

        That is not the same as saying the methane release has no effect on global warming. Because it does have an effect. In the words of your review, instead of hitting stopped traffic at 60 mph, we'll hit it at 90 mph.

      • Imagine how much it would suck if the denialists' mysterious natural source of warming turned out to exist...they'd be proven right completely by coincidence.

        Although I doubt a natural methane source could go completely unaccounted for, if there were some hole in the ground in some undiscovered corner of the earth with fossil CO2 gushing out of it (it would have to be like a mega-volcano of CO2, since actual volcanic eruptions are nothing compared to human activity), it would be pretty hard to account for h

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Your subject line is not supported by the article we're discussing today.

      • by DamonHD (794830)

        Why do you say that? Given that my subject line is an excerpt of the title of the paper I referenced, which seems applicable, where's the disconnect?

        Rgds

        Damon

    • by Lumpy (12016) on Friday December 16, 2011 @08:45AM (#38396176) Homepage

      So why not tap it and burn it off? it's a shallow sea cant they drill and start sucking?

      • by aurizon (122550)

        I think the methane is emitted over large areas and the amount at any one place might be too small to collect. An inverted cone 1000 meters across that funneled the methane into a tanker(compress and cool into liquid) for use in heating or chemical process industries. What is the rate of emission from this 1000 meter across plume?? It might be uneconomic.

        We could make lots of inverted cone gatherers and burn off the methane - a less than perfect solution, but the CO2 thus released is 1/70th as bad as metha

        • by gr8_phk (621180)
          You don't use a cone. It's probably trapped in hydrates that can be "processed" to get the methane out all at once instead of letting it escape gradually and try to collect it.
        • by nadaou (535365) on Friday December 16, 2011 @11:53AM (#38398240) Homepage

          methane is a more potent ghg, but only really sticks around in the upper atm for 25 to 125 years before it breaks down to co2+h2o. co2 sticks around until the next epoch of mass vegetation.
          cumulatively (if you integrate it wrt dt), co2 is still much worse, and methane is just delayed co2.

          and yes, it is typically too diffuse to economically mine. but people are certainly willing to try.

          the melting pt is around 4C, if the oceans at 1000m get up to that we hit the ghg positive feedback loop doomsday scenario.

          fun times.

          in this case I wonder if volcanic activity might be warming the earth below a patch.

      • by cusco (717999) <<brian.bixby> <at> <gmail.com>> on Friday December 16, 2011 @01:26PM (#38399736)
        These are clathrate deposits, frozen blocks of methane. It would take the equivalent of underwater strip mines to get at the stuff, and it's so unstable that it's almost impossible to handle safely. They've looked at mining clathrate deposits along the continental shelves, and even those paragons of environmental caution BP and Exxon decided it was unfeasible.
    • by tp1024 (2409684) on Friday December 16, 2011 @09:09AM (#38396334)
      If methane was a serious problem, the must have been a huge one at the end of the last ice age, when there was a lot more permafrost thawing up and releasing methane than there is even in existence today. Alas, [am.ub.es] it wasn't.

      If methane was the harbinger of a climate apocalypse, the apocalypse should have happened long ago.
      • I'm not sure I follow -- your position is that there was not a dramatic shift in the climate at the end of the last ice age?

        When you say "end of the last ice age", what do you mean?

        • by tp1024 (2409684)
          There was no dramatic shift that led to complete melting of all permafrost and a global warming 5K above today's levels, as the climate-apocalypse-runaway-chain-reaction is supposed to do. The increase in methane was a result, not the cause of he warming. Correlation does not imply causation.
          • No scientist, ever, anywhere, thinks that the Antarctic is going to melt completely. Ice mass and permafrost that happens to be in a sufficiently cold place (central Antarctic continent being the most obvious location) will stay frozen. The exact amount of permafrost today must necessarily be a delicate balance, so some warming must melt some permafrost (well, given that some landmass does exist at intermediate latitudes).

            The increase of methane must be both the result, and a partial cause, of any warming.

      • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Friday December 16, 2011 @10:05AM (#38396750)

        If methane was the harbinger of a climate apocalypse, the apocalypse should have happened long ago.

        The end of the ice age involved melting through a mile-thick sheet of ice. Much of this pooled up behind a gargantuan ice dam, and when it broke loose, it scoured much of the western United States off the map in a cataclysmic torrent that flowed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. That's not a "climate apocalypse"?

    • by alcarinque (1534085) on Friday December 16, 2011 @09:49AM (#38396596)
      Wasn't something like this that caused one of the biggest extinctions ever? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permian%E2%80%93Triassic_extinction_event#Methane_hydrate_gasification [wikipedia.org]
    • Temperate methane clathrates are deeper and stabilized by pressure in warmer water. The Arctic clathrates, as mentioned in this article, exist over huge land areas and were stabilized by temperature under permafrost and there is also a lot in the shallow of the arctic, also cold stabilized. Both the water based and tundra based clathrates are being released now. This is very ominous. Nothing we can do will prevent this - not even a total cessation of coal/oil/gas combustion - and we know how likely that is!
      Part of the methane from millions of years of vegetative rotting on tundra and shallow seas was trapped in these clathrates. Large areas of tundra are also emitting methane the same way.

      dig deeper here http://tinyurl.com/d64n5zb [tinyurl.com]

      Bill

  • The next question (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sidthegeek (626567) on Friday December 16, 2011 @06:56AM (#38395624)
    Now, the next question would be whether it'd be profitable for anyone to access this methane. I wouldn't think so, seeing as oil rigs burn it off when drilling, but would this be different?
    • by Joce640k (829181) on Friday December 16, 2011 @07:05AM (#38395666) Homepage

      Can these plumes be lit? Burning it would be cool (and reduce the overall greenhouse effect)

      • Tapping them for electricity would be pretty awesome

      • Yes, they can. Video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1liqk9UQNAQ [youtube.com]

        Whether it can be tapped on an industrial scale is another matter altogether.
    • Re:The next question (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 16, 2011 @08:12AM (#38395984)

      Drilling for methane hydrate deposits is one of the 'unconventional' energy resources that's had a lot of attention paid to it in the last while. I believe the Japanese, amongst several others, are paying a lot of attention to it as there are some big deposits off their coast.

      However, the relative 'tightness' (poor quality) of the sediment its found in makes it difficult to extract. It's a completely different situation compared to a conventional gas reservoir.

      Ironically enough, the poor quality and relative depth of the sediment could be the thing that stops this being as bad as some people think it could be.

      • A bit of an incomplete thought here, but I wonder about the possibilities of utilizing these plumes as a source for raw materials for polymers. The one word "plastics" is still as important today as it has been for the past 70 years. Bioplastics is coming along well but why not use what's coming out of the earth at a rapid rate? The purity would certainly be of concern, and any sulfur may result in catalyst poisoning, but I wonder if there may be a benefit towards collection and purification? There's resear
    • by jimshatt (1002452)
      Seems that NASA is investigating the possibilities of methane as a rocket fuel: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2007/04may_methaneblast/ [nasa.gov]
      And it's a very clean fuel too, so, yeah, I was thinking along the same lines.
  • by Zondar (32904) on Friday December 16, 2011 @07:08AM (#38395678)

    ""The concentration of atmospheric methane increased unto three times in the past two centuries from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7ppm, and in the Arctic to 1.9ppm. That's a huge increase, between two and three times,"

    I'm OK with her statement, until this:

    "...and this has never happened in the history of the planet," she added.

    So there's data for the last 4+ BILLION years with 10-50 year precision so that over a 100-200 year timespan, she can measure the slope of the line (rate in rise over the run of time) precisely enough to say that the slope of the line over the last 200 years is steeper than it has been in any other 200 year period in the last 4 billion years? Sorry, but I find that hard to believe.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by sjwt (161428)

      Looks like a rather natural cycle, with about a 100k period, with our current high period being an extended one, but it goes back almost 15 thousand years, and yes their are higher peeks.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vostok_420ky_4curves_insolation.jpg [wikipedia.org]

      • by zill (1690130) on Friday December 16, 2011 @07:59AM (#38395920)

        with our current high period being an extended one

        "Extended"? How about "off the charts"? The current ch4 concentration is 1745 ppbv, which is almost twice the peak on that chart.

        and yes their are higher peeks

        No, there hasn't been. This planet has not seen this much CO2 or methane in the past 400,000 years according to that graph.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 16, 2011 @08:24AM (#38396052)

          What graph are you looking at? Cause the graph I'm looking at shows both CO2 levels and CH4 levels higher at about 125kya and 325kya.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vostok_420ky_4curves_insolation.jpg

          So this planet HAS seen this much or more CO2 and methane in the past 400,000 years according to that graph.

          • by stevelinton (4044) <sal@dcs.st-and.ac.uk> on Friday December 16, 2011 @08:49AM (#38396208) Homepage

            That chart is too coarse-grained, in the time dimension to show the recent very sharp peak. The CH4 peaks (including the "present" one) on that chart
            are at about 0.7 ppm and the current level is about 1.7. Similarly, the CO2 peaks are at about 280 ppm and the current level is around 385.

          • by zill (1690130) on Friday December 16, 2011 @08:52AM (#38396226)
            That chart only covers the ice-core data, which doesn't include the past few hundred years. Google "CO2 ppmv" and "methane ppbv" and you'll see that the current levels are off the charts. I've even graphed it out for you here. [imgur.com] Sorry about my shitty photoshop skills.
            • by gr8_phk (621180)
              So if we leave nature alone we *should expect* to go back into an ice age. I'd much rather try everything we can to keep the temperature up and prevent that. The northern latitudes have plenty of undeveloped land to move to if it gets warmer. Moving south in the freeze isn't so much an option.
          • by Cyberax (705495)

            One PIXEL on this graph is about 1000 years. Our current rapid climate change would look on this graph as a discontinuity - an immediate jump.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      As a scientist, I'd say don't believe anything a scientist says to a journalist. Journalists can wrap most of us round their little fingers in a phone interview.

    • by jlehtira (655619) on Friday December 16, 2011 @09:30AM (#38396452) Journal
      You're right, that's obviously nonsense. We don't have such data. Further, it's been suggested that the Permian Extinction [wikipedia.org], killing (up to) 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates, was caused by a sudden release of methane. So there's indication that large increases did happen before, although there's no way of telling how fast.
    • by thomst (1640045) on Friday December 16, 2011 @09:43AM (#38396542) Homepage

      ""The concentration of atmospheric methane increased unto three times in the past two centuries from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7ppm, and in the Arctic to 1.9ppm. That's a huge increase, between two and three times,"

      I'm OK with her statement, until this:

      "...and this has never happened in the history of the planet," she added.

      So there's data for the last 4+ BILLION years with 10-50 year precision so that over a 100-200 year timespan, she can measure the slope of the line (rate in rise over the run of time) precisely enough to say that the slope of the line over the last 200 years is steeper than it has been in any other 200 year period in the last 4 billion years? Sorry, but I find that hard to believe.

      I suspect she's talking about it having never previously happened in a span of just a couple of centuries.

      A dramatic increase in atmospheric methane - triggered by a dramatic rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide? Now that's definitely happened before - at the end of the Permian Period. And it helped cause the Permian/Triassic extinction event [wikipedia.org], the largest species die-off since the Oxygen Catastrophe.

    • increased unto three times in the past two centuries from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7ppm

      1.7 / 0.7 = 2.42 ~= 2.5 ~= 3 times which is almost 5 times which is like 10 times as much!

    • by ClintJCL (264898)
      You find it hard to believe on what specific scientific basis?
  • Oh great (Score:4, Informative)

    by Guil Rarey (306566) on Friday December 16, 2011 @07:31AM (#38395794)

    Mega-giant civilization destroying hurricanes next. We're doomed.

    • by Thud457 (234763)
      Jersey Shore, religious Luddites and plain old-fashioned greed were doing an adequate job of destroying civilization before we learned about this minor new problem.
  • when did it start? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Friday December 16, 2011 @08:27AM (#38396070) Journal

    Nothing I see in that article suggests that this is a new phenomenon...aside from the hyperbolic statements of the scientists.

    The author is astonishingly remiss in not asking the obvious question: did this just start? It could be that such methane plumes have existed forever, we just never detected them. This is the EIGHTH such cruise/survey. They should be able to conclusively say "we checked this area in at least one or two previous instances and such seeps weren't observed", no?

    It seems logical that there must have been plumes like this for a while, to prompt (and justify) such a large-scale survey.

    Yet both the scientists and article author seem to gloss over the fact that "never seen before" != "never happened before".

    • by wytcld (179112) on Friday December 16, 2011 @09:49AM (#38396600) Homepage

      Plumes have been seen before. This has been reported in other articles on this. However the plumes seen before were neither so large nor grouped so closely together.

      Your painting the scientists as "hyperbolic" speakers establishes, what, that you know a big word and can use it correctly in a sentence? This should cause us to see you as smarter than research scientists with advanced degrees and many years of expeditions to gather evidence? Trust me, they have a far larger vocabulary than you do. Yet you are the one speaking hyperbolically. Now, what drives you to that?

      It's not as if the waters where these were found were terra incognito - or mare incognito - the arctic has been peopled for thousands of years, particularly by the Russians, which is how they came to possess not just Siberia but Alaska. So when a Russian, in particular, says the like has not been seen before, that's someone reporting from a culture which has a good historical knowledge of what's been there to be seen. Sort of like getting a report on the normalcy or not of current tornadoes from someone with deep roots in Oklahoma.

      • by gr8_phk (621180)

        It's not as if the waters where these were found were terra incognito - or mare incognito - the arctic has been peopled for thousands of years, particularly by the Russians, which is how they came to possess not just Siberia but Alaska. So when a Russian, in particular, says the like has not been seen before, that's someone reporting from a culture which has a good historical knowledge of what's been there to be seen. Sort of like getting a report on the normalcy or not of current tornadoes from someone wit

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by thomst (1640045)

      Nothing I see in that article suggests that this is a new phenomenon...aside from the hyperbolic statements of the scientists.

      The author is astonishingly remiss in not asking the obvious question: did this just start? It could be that such methane plumes have existed forever, we just never detected them. This is the EIGHTH such cruise/survey. They should be able to conclusively say "we checked this area in at least one or two previous instances and such seeps weren't observed", no?

      It seems logical that there must have been plumes like this for a while, to prompt (and justify) such a large-scale survey.

      Yet both the scientists and article author seem to gloss over the fact that "never seen before" != "never happened before".

      In fact, Igor Semiletov's team has been conducting this survey annually for some time now. From the article:

      The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.

      And they have seen this phenomenon in prior years - just not on anything like the scale of methane release they observed this year. Again, from the article:

      "Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing," Dr Semiletov said.

      Don't blame the scientist. Don't blame the journalist. Blame the reader, for not reading the story.

    • by c0lo (1497653) on Friday December 16, 2011 @09:53AM (#38396628)

      Nothing I see in that article suggests that this is a new phenomenon...aside from the hyperbolic statements of the scientists.

      Hmmmm... TFA...

      The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.

      In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the 8th joint US-Russia cruise of the East Siberian Arctic seas, said that he has never before witnessed the scale and force of the methane being released from beneath the Arctic seabed.

      "Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing," Dr Semiletov said.

      So, 20 years of beating around the Arctics and seeing seepings of 10s m in diameter and, unlucky them, it is only recently that they found the larger ones... What are the chances? I mean, pretty hard luck to miss something that large and find only the smaller ones for 20 years... I wonder why the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks keeps such unlucky researchers on its payroll?

      • by gr8_phk (621180)

        So, 20 years of beating around the Arctics and seeing seepings of 10s m in diameter and, unlucky them, it is only recently that they found the larger ones... What are the chances? I mean, pretty hard luck to miss something that large and find only the smaller ones for 20 years... I wonder why the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks keeps such unlucky researchers on its payroll?

        Yeah, and the guys who've been measuring the height of waves in Fukushima for the last 500 y

    • by c0lo (1497653)

      It could be that such methane plumes have existed forever, we just never detected them. This is the EIGHTH such cruise/survey.

      BTW: it is the "8th joint US-Russia cruise", not the absolute eighth.

    • by Muros (1167213)

      Nothing I see in that article suggests that this is a new phenomenon...aside from the hyperbolic statements of the scientists.

      The author is astonishingly remiss in not asking the obvious question: did this just start?

      I thought it obvious from sentences like "...said that he has never before witnessed the scale.." "This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres in diameter" "the latest expedition suggests this is a significant underestimate of the true scale of the phenomenon" that this is known about. The article is about the fact that this year it is on a larger scale than in the past.

      This is the EIGHTH such cruise/survey. They should be able to conclusively say "we checked this area in at least one or two previous instances and such seeps weren't observed", no?

      It seems logical that there must have been plumes like this for a while, to prompt (and justify) such a large-scale survey.

      Yet both the scientists and article author seem to gloss over the fact that "never seen before" != "never happened before".

      It is the 8th joint Russian-American survey. There have more th

  • ka ching! (Score:4, Informative)

    by sgt scrub (869860) <saintium@ y a hoo.com> on Friday December 16, 2011 @08:53AM (#38396232)

    This is a gold mine of resources. There are a lot of great things going on with methane studies, from fuel cells to low energy conversion methods.

    Sen and postdoctoral associate Minren Lin announced a breakthrough. By dissolving a powder of rhodium chloride in water, along with carbon monoxide and oxygen, they had produced acetic acid from methane directly. The reaction took place at a relatively low temperature (100 degrees centigrade), required little energy, and left no environmentally harmful solvents to throw away. http://www.rps.psu.edu/sep98/methane.html [psu.edu]

    Colleagues of ours created a highly porous carbon-nitrogen polymer, which we realised had very similar structural motifs to the Periana catalyst,' Schüth says, 'so we wondered if we could incorporate platinum into the structure.
    If the mixture is then pressurised in an autoclave with methane, the methane is consumed and methanol formed at conversion rates comparable to Periana-based systems but with the solid catalyst easily recoverable at the end of the reaction. http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2009/August/10080902.asp [rsc.org]

  • Just lay out a giant tent and capture it. The methane goes up right and there's nothing of value in the way (the tent will get covered in snow and animals can just cross like usual). Instead of having to drill for fuel just let it come to us.

  • Just light a match. (Oh, and stand back a bit.)

  • Tow it up to the Arctic and use it to encapsulate the methane.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch [wikipedia.org]

  • by _Eric (25017) on Friday December 16, 2011 @10:29AM (#38397052)

    Maybe a tipping point in global warming has just been passed...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis [wikipedia.org]

  • by Layzej (1976930) on Friday December 16, 2011 @10:39AM (#38397170)
    This video shows what happens when you hold a match next to a freshly made hole in the ice: Hunting for methane with Katey Walter Anthony [youtube.com]

    Fire and Ice: Permafrost Melt Spews Combustible Methane [youtube.com]

  • Could we not start to bottle it up, as we do propane, and then be able to either figure out how to use it as fuel source, or maybe use it out in space as a fuel source if it is toxic here on earth as fuel source....I mean I am not a scientist but I figure any pressurized gas could act as a great source of alignment control unit on a craft in space.....?

  • Bee do do doooo. Be do do do do!

  • "This finding is important because methane is estimated to be 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and it could indicate that global warming is about to accelerate dramatically" Or, conveniently left out of the horror story, is that fact that since it was just discovered it could have been going on for a very long time and the effects are already covered in the temperature data and it makes no difference at all except as an interesting find. But balanced and thoughtful reportage would

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