The Daily Anthropocene: Clathrate Gun Trigger Squeeze

gulf stream hydrate destabilization

The Gulf Stream is an ocean current that modulates climate in the Northern Hemisphere by transporting warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico into the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans12. A changing Gulf Stream has the potential to thaw and convert hundreds of gigatonnes of frozen methane hydrate trapped below the sea floor into methane gas, increasing the risk of slope failure and methane release3456789. How the Gulf Stream changes with time and what effect these changes have on methane hydrate stability is unclear. Here, using seismic data combined with thermal models, we show that recent changes in intermediate-depth ocean temperature associated with the Gulf Stream are rapidly destabilizing methane hydrate along a broad swathe of the North American margin. The area of active hydrate destabilization covers at least 10,000 square kilometres of the United States eastern margin, and occurs in a region prone to kilometre-scale slope failures. Previous hypothetical studies35 postulated that an increase of five degrees Celsius in intermediate-depth ocean temperatures could release enough methane to explain extreme global warming events like the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) and trigger widespread ocean acidification7. Our analysis suggests that changes in Gulf Stream flow or temperature within the past 5,000 years or so are warming the western North Atlantic margin by up to eight degrees Celsius and are now triggering the destabilization of 2.5 gigatonnes of methane hydrate (about 0.2 per cent of that required to cause the PETM). This destabilization extends along hundreds of kilometres of the margin and may continue for centuries. It is unlikely that the western North Atlantic margin is the only area experiencing changing ocean currents101112; our estimate of 2.5 gigatonnes of destabilizing methane hydrate may therefore represent only a fraction of the methane hydrate currently destabilizing globally. The transport from ocean to atmosphere of any methane released—and thus its impact on climate—remains uncertain.

The above text is the abstract for a paper published last October in the journal Nature, snappily titled Recent changes to the Gulf Stream causing widespread gas hydrate destabilization. If the abstract didn’t make it clear to you, I’ll let John Michael Greer, the Archdruid of The Archdruid Report, splain it for you:

The end of the last ice age saw sharp increases in methane concentrations in the atmosphere, the rapid melting of continental glaciers, and a steep rise in global temperature that peaked around 6,000 years ago at levels considerably higher than they are today. A controversial theory, the “clathrate gun” hypothesis, argues that the warming was triggered by massive methane releases from the oceans.  Whether or not that was the major factor, ice cores from Greenland document rising levels of methane in the air around the same time as the stunningly sudden global warming – an increase of more than 15°F in global average temperatures in less than a decade – that triggered the final collapse of the great ice sheets.
The first point to grasp from this is that methane releases aren’t the end of the world. Our ancestors got through the last rounds of it without any sign of massive dieoff, and it’s been argued that the nearly worldwide legends of a great flood may embody a dim folk memory of the vast postglacial floods that took place as the ice melted and the seas rose. For that matter, during most of Earth’s history, the planet has been much hotter than it is now; only a few tens of millions of years ago – yes, that’s practically an eyeblink in deep time – crocodiles sunned themselves on the subtropical shores of Canada’s north coast, at a time when Canada was nearly as close to the North Pole as it is today.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that a methane spike in the Arctic can simply be ignored. Since the dim folk memories that might be embodied in flood legends are the only records we’ve got for the human experience of abrupt global warming, we simply don’t know how fast the temperature shift might affect, for example, the already unstable Greenland ice sheet, which contains enough water to raise sea level worldwide by around 30 feet.  Some theoretical models argue that Greenland’s ice will melt slowly, while others argue that water pooling beneath the ice could cause huge sections of it to slide off into the sea in short order, filling the North Atlantic first with icebergs, then with meltwater. Which model is correct?  Only Gaia knows, and she ain’t telling.
Equally, we don’t know whether the melting of the Greenland ice sheet will make nearby continental shelves unstable, as it did the last time around, and reproduce the same set of conditions that caused gargantuan tsunamis at the end of the last ice age. There’s abundant evidence for these; one of them, according to recent research, flooded the North Sea and carved the English Channel in a single day around 8000 years ago; we don’t know how soon those might become a factor around the Atlantic basin, or even if they will. It’s unsettling to realize that we may have no way of finding out until the first one hits.
All that’s certain at this point is that something potentially very troubling is happening in Arctic waters,  and the possibility that it might have destructive consequences on a local, regional, or continental scale can’t be ruled out. Panic is the least useful response I can think of, so I’ll say this very quietly: if the news from Arctic waters in the months and years to come suggests that things are moving in the wrong direction, and those of my readers who live close to the shores of the northern Atlantic basin happen to have the opportunity to move inland or to higher ground, it might not be unreasonable to do so.
The Archdruid was writing about reports from Russian scientists who are studying methane plumes in the Arctic. Let me borrow a metaphor from Adam Smith: A giant invisible hand* made of the accumulated emissions of our fossil carbon energy economy is squeezing the trigger of the clathrate gun. BANG! Remember, as the Archdruid says, “Panic is the least useful response.”
*Every individual… neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.
Adam Smith, The Theory Of Moral Sentiments

8 responses to “The Daily Anthropocene: Clathrate Gun Trigger Squeeze

  1. Silly me, i thought the methane hydrates were simply a northern Alaska
    problem which good ole American ingenuity would solve by mining the
    stuff, once all that polar ice cleared out. Ship it straight to China and
    India, voila !!Capitalism the mithridate of all human ills, so sayeth the
    seers of Wall Street. Believe and ye shall enter the kingdom of riches.

    “A giant invisible hand* made of the accumulated emissions of our fossil carbon energy economy is squeezing the trigger of the clathrate gun. BANG!”
    The first great attempts at modeling climate change in the Seventies and
    Eighties failed, leading to ridicule. The computing power may not have
    been as much as needed, but the more serious problem with the model[s]
    used is that the modelers had no conception of the actual forces acting on climate. GIGO, as we used to say in those Seventies.

    research post 1995 and ongoing at CERN, for instance, demonstrates
    the overwhelming influence of varying amounts of cosmic radiation over
    eons on Earth’s climate. See “The Chilling Stars” for a early account.
    It is probable that if one were to attempt a ranking of various forces
    affecting world temperatures today, one would place cosmic radiation,
    a force that is likely totally beyond human control, well ahead of the
    undoubted multiple effects of massive reliance on burning fossil fuels
    over the last two centuries. Verbum sap sat.

  2. Dave at collinda

    Not so sure that the CERN research that Spike cites provides anything approximating “overwhelming influence” of cosmic radiation on Earth’s climate. The lead report of that research (here: examine the relationship between cosmic radiation and low altitude cloud formation. Throughout the article the authors note that the effects remain poorly understood, require additional study and may well have uncertain if any effects on cloud formation. The scholarly article appearing in Science makes no claim for broad scale climate effects. However, a certain portions of the propaganda machine (aka “the media”) predictably jumped on the study and began waving it about as “proof” that burning fossil fuel is not the cause of the increasingly changing climate; to the delight of their paymasters, I suspect.

    I as unaware of the research you cite, Dana, regarding methane and like Spike had learned only of the research under way in the Northern climes.I need to examine that more closely, thanks for the heads up..

  3. Spike is getting his contrarian yayas out with this cosmic ray stuff. Svensmark, the originator of the theory, is an actual scientist, but the cowriter of the book “The Chilling Stars,” Nigel Calder is not, and has been an anthropogenic climate change skeptic for more than thirty years and thus can be suspected of exercising a great fat confirmation bias. Svensmark’s theory has not been supported by subsequent observation. Other scientists have reanalyzed Svensmark’s data and concluded it does not indicate a correlation between cosmic rays and changes in global temperature. Svensmark does not agree; but he wouldn’t, would he? And yes, denialists use the idea (It’s Science!) to dazzle rubes like Spike.

  4. Here’s a little tutorial, Spike:

  5. See also:

    This one covers scientific objections to anthropogenic climate change, including Svensmark’s.

  6. Erratum: where I wrote in my first comment “theory,” read “hypothesis.”

  7. Oh yes, and this:

    Are cosmic rays causing global warming?

  8. Guess i’ll have to change my moniker to “Rube”.
    Or not. Glad to see that the good Dr. is so engaged.
    The energy he brings far exceeds mine.
    And i know him well enough to know that he
    will change his opinions over time based on
    research and ratiocination. No need nor benefit
    to get up a load of ad hominem in re the good Dr.,
    nor even to spike a few errors and omissions
    in those videos.

    It is also apparent that i have failed to make
    explicit my concerns regarding current
    understanding of climate and human effects
    on climate.
    Without doing so here, i nonetheless wish to note:

    I have accepted since the early 1970’s that humans
    make drastic, negative changes to the land, seas and
    atmosphere of Earth. The most oft cited “cause”
    of world climate change that i remember from the 1980’s
    was our destruction of the [ mostly ] Brazilian rain
    forests. I have never heard this hypothesis refuted.

    I continue to accept that human presence and activity on the planet
    is massively harmful to other life forms and humans.

    I accept that human activity is vastly impacting
    planetary weather and climate.

    I guess that governments world wide face imminent
    climate-related crises, and that they have shown no
    ability to comprehend or communicate the scope of the
    disaster, much less create viable cross-border responses.
    Note that i do not say “solutions”. It appears that there
    are no viable solutions to the climate changes, regardless
    of who is in charge and how much they cooperate, and
    how much power they wield.

    It also has become evident that governments are already
    using bad climate science and bad intents to bully their
    own and other populations. That process may be unstoppable;
    we will experience the propaganda “flavor of the month”
    and hysteria, regardless.

    Wither truth ?
    “Science, where is thy sting?”

    That’s enough for now.

    Science will out, i.e., eventually the scientific method
    will succeed in creating a viable model of Earth’s past
    climate, and one can hope that the model[s] will be good
    enough to predict both short and long term trends.
    One way to appraise Svensmark’s work is that it is
    a valuable critique on the inadequacies of current and past
    climate models.

    I intend to have no scientific biases. Such intent
    is hardly sufficient to prevent making errors. Those will
    be sorted out in time.

    The first “tutorial’ video says, when opened:
    “This video does not exist.”
    The other videos as well as comments above may
    say true things, but do not seem to address the details
    nor the scope of Svensmark’s work that most interest me.

    To Dave at collinda, thanks. I referenced some CERN research.
    My purpose was not so much to reinforce Svensmark’s ideas, but to
    suggest that some scientists and governments understand that
    a viable planetary climate model does not exist, and that
    basic research needs to be done.

    The link you provide and the notes you provide on it seem to
    agree with info in links i have sent out to others in past.

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