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Methane quake

December 17, 2011

In The Highest Frontier, a methane quake in the Atlantic causes a tsunami that floods Manhattan. A methane quake is the sudden release of marine sedimentary methane hydrates, a cool form of methane ice that you can hold in your hand while it burns. But release enough of it in one place, and you have catastrophic waves plus huge increase of global warming gases.

Methane release is already here, at the poles. In 2007, in Alaska, lightning set fire to the tundra. No fire had occurred in that frozen region for the past 5,000 years. Methane release is like CO2 release on steroids.

I know global climate change is a subject that people from Charlie’s blog and elsewhere have many questions about. There are more questions than answers in this science/speculation field. If you have questions to post here, I’d be glad to respond or share with my colleagues that work on it every day.

[Note added below: Methane hydrate release is believed to have caused the ancient Storegga landslides off the coast of Norway, which led to a tremendous tsunami.]

  1. December 17, 2011 4:08 pm

    The climate models predicting a meter of sea level rise by 2100 (if I recall correctly) do not incorporate these sorts of methane feedbacks. Is anyone trying to model this and figure out where it takes us, and how fast?

    • December 17, 2011 4:25 pm

      You’re correct that current climate models do not include methane. I believe that is because:

      (1) Until recently, atmospheric methane has been such a tiny amount as to have little consequence. Soil bacteria oxidize methane, and in the upper atmosphere cosmic rays and other effects remove methane.

      (2) It’s been hard to quantify how much methane there is in the permafrost and at the ocean floor. In the past ten years we’ve learned a lot about both.

      (3) Recent observations suggest that a catastrophic release of methane could occur–so great that it would be impossible to model accurately just how large the catastrophe would be. See this NSF report:

  2. SFreader permalink
    December 17, 2011 8:31 pm

    So cows are no longer the culprits. The article speaks mostly about atmospheric impact. What is the impact of methane on marine life?

    • December 17, 2011 8:55 pm

      Cows and rice fields may be associated with the exponential rise of methane since 1750:

      The rise, though worrisome (anything exponential always gets big eventually) only led to parts per million so far. What is new is that the methane release from tundra and ocean hydrates could abruptly jump the methane level by orders of magnitude; and we have no idea how to model the size of the change.

      So far, methane has not significantly harmed marine life. The small amounts seeping up are oxidized by methanotrophs, methane-oxidizing bacteria. In fact, methane seeps actually feed seafloor ecosystems of bacteria in symbiosis with animals like giant clams.

      A rapid methane release could asphyxiate life; it’s been proposed as another model of mass extinction of ancient life:

      Click to access 1168.1.full.pdf

      Today we see worse problems in the “dead zones” caused by microbial oxidation of sewage effluents.

  3. December 17, 2011 9:28 pm

    To see how a methane quake could work:
    The ancient Storegga landslides off the coast of Norway are believed to have caused a tremendous tsunami:

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