The methane bomb scenario got a new boost into the public eye after being featured in a hotly debated New York magazine article on climate change, which argued that without sharp cuts in planet-warming carbon emissions, parts of the Earth “will likely become close to uninhabitable” by the end of this century. A methane feedback was only one float in the parade of horribles outlined in the article, which has come under fire from several prominent climate scientists as being too alarmist.
A 2014 study led by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado estimated that unless humans curb their emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouses gases, a widespread release of carbon trapped in permafrost around the globe could increase the resulting warming by about 8 percent — adding slightly over a third of a degree to a 4-5°C increase by 2100. If emissions are reined to the point that warming can be held down close to the 2°C goal of the Paris climate accord, that increase might be around a tenth of a degree.
However, the study adds that the bulk of the resulting emissions are likely to occur after 2100 — which could push the planet beyond the Paris target. And other studies have shown that more temperate soils can also give up more greenhouse emissions when warmed.
But how much more? That question may yield some encouraging news.
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Joel Kostka, a microbiologist at Georgia Tech, is part of a team from several universities that has set up an experiment station in northern Minnesota to study just that question. The not-quite-frozen peat bogs found in those regions are also huge carbon sinks, so Kostka and his colleagues have tried to simulate what happens to that peat when it’s warmed to various temperatures. The results to date suggest the soil may not give up its carbon so easily.
“The predominance of our data shows most of that methane is coming from the surface soils,” Kostka said. That’s “relatively recent” carbon, “not the ancient carbon that we are more concerned about.” That’s held up since the team published its first round of findings in December, he said.
“We still think we’re not seeing evidence of that deep, ancient carbon being released as CO2 or methane,” he said.
The far North’s carbon stores also extend into the ocean, on continental shelves that were above water during the last ice age and in the deep ocean floor, and scientists have been watching closely for any signs that warming is freeing methane that’s currently trapped in ice crystals known as hydrates.
But Carolyn Ruppel, a research geophysicist at the US Geological Survey, said methane that escapes the deep Arctic Ocean isn’t likely to reach the surface. Instead, it gets dissolved into the water and eaten by subsea microbes. The catch is, the byproducts of that digestion include carbon dioxide, which makes the oceans more acidic.
And so far on land, it’s not clear whether methane or carbon dioxide would become a bigger source of emissions under future warming scenarios, said Ruppel, who leads the USGS gas hydrates research project. The world has a bigger problem in the emissions that humans pump out every day, she said.
“The bottom line is in reality, the anthropogenic CO2 emissions are far, far more important in the atmosphere than methane, even though the methane is a very potent greenhouse gas,” she said.
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