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Monday, July 15, 2013

The Siberian Methane Burp

Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf Carbon Deposits of methane and carboniferous materials on Arctic coastal areas also represent a considerable store of materials that have potential to release greenhouse gas emissions that will continue to accelerate the rate of climate change.  The Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) covers approximately 7,000 kilometers with significant outcroppings of complex ancient ice deposits rich in carboniferous materials in addition to substantial quantities of shallow sub sea permafrost.  This exists throughout the entire Arctic region, but the ESAS is by far the most proliferous area.

As climate change creates larger open water areas in the Arctic for longer periods of time, erosion of these shelves increase the release of these carboniferous materials into the ocean.  Microbial consumption of these materials produces carbon dioxide and methane.  The release of carbon dioxide and methane vent to the atmosphere.  Massive deposits of methane hydrates are also known to exist in the form of methane hydrates are trapped in a frozen state beneath the Arctic tundra. Coastal erosion due to increased tidal activity combined with warming will bring these coastline and sea based deposits to the mix.  Since methane has approximately 20-23 times greater impact on warming, meaning it traps much more heat, the ramifications of large scale emissions of methane into the atmosphere further exacerbate the positive feedback loop effect.  

Because methane dissipates relatively quickly, the overall impact of methane release may not have enormous impact on overall global average temperatures in and of itself, taken together with other components in a planetary scale positive feedback loop, the impact could be magnified significantly.If technology existed to easily capture methane from the Arctic tundra, the sheer quantity of deposits might help to accelerate the economic viability of methane production.  Because methane is a very efficient fuel, there is little doubt that an economic model to capture methane would be of serious interest to various stakeholders in the Arctic, especially those who would be in a position to benefit from profitable resource development. 

Capturing the methane before it escapes into the atmosphere would prevent a greenhouse gas some 20+ times more potent than CO2 from contributing its effects to climate change.  But the numerous challenges of getting to the resource and then fielding the technology to capture it present challenges that may render this option uneconomic.  Nevertheless, it's something we continue to ponder and think about... after all, if we're not paying attention to it, we might find out one day we were ignoring a vast sources of greenhouse gas.

Could methane be a tipping point greenhouse gas that forces extraordinarily expensive adaptation strategies to be implemented at a greatly accelerated pace?  If it does become a tipping point gas, it's safe to bet it could impact climate change faster than most policy analysts would ever be willing to publicly admit.

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