Gas stovetops have become a proxy battleground for the future of the planet. Some cities are trying to cut down their greenhouse gas emissions by getting rid of gas hookups in new construction. But the natural gas industry isn’t going down without a fight.
Pro-gas marketing campaigns have most successfully waged its war in the kitchen, promoting gas stoves as superior to electric ranges. That’s made it more difficult for cities like Seattle to pass mandates that would limit the use of gas in homes and buildings. What’s at stake in this fight is cities’ ability to cut down their greenhouse gas emissions.
Further complicating things, the gas industry has, for decades, framed itself as a “cleaner” alternative to fossil fuels like coal and oil. “We should probably discuss the name of it: ‘Natural gas.’” says Panama Bartholomy, executive director of the nonprofit Building Decarbonization Coalition in California. “It has been perhaps one of the most successful marketing campaigns that we’ve seen from a large industry to call what is really a dangerous pollutant, something natural.”THE SCIENCE THAT’S GIVEN US A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON NATURAL GAS
Recent research has chipped away at that all-natural image. It turns out that the process of extracting natural gas and getting it to people’s homes can do serious damage to the climate because it belches out so much methane. Methane is a super potent greenhouse gas with even more power to heat up the planet than carbon dioxide. What’s more, gas stoves can also affect air quality inside the home.
The Verge dove into the science that’s given us a new perspective on natural gas. And we explore what this tussle over stovetops might mean for our homes and the environment. If you want to know more about why a beloved kitchen appliance could hold up efforts to tackle the climate crisis, check out our video above.
Beneath the cold, dark depths of the Arctic ocean sit vast reserves of methane. These stores rest in a delicate balance, stable as a solid called methane hydrates, at very specific pressures and temperatures. If that balance gets tipped, the methane can get released into the water above and eventually make its way to the atmosphere. In its gaseous form, methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, warming the Earth about 30 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide. Understanding possible sources of atmospheric methane is critical for accurately predicting future climate change.
In the Arctic Ocean today, ice sheets exert pressure on the ground below them. That pressure diffuses all the way to the seafloor, controlling the precarious stability in seafloor sediments. But what happens when the ice sheets melt?
New research, published on today in Geology, indicates that during the last two global periods of sea-ice melt, the decrease in pressure triggered methane release from buried reserves. Their results demonstrate that as Arctic ice, such as the Greenland ice sheet, melts, similar methane release is likely and should be included in climate models.
Pierre-Antoine Dessandier, a postdoctoral scientist at the Arctic University of Norway, and his co-authors were interested in two periods around 20 thousand years ago (ka), known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and 130 ka, known as the Eemian deglaciation. Because the Eemian had less ice and was warmer than the LGM, it is more similar to what the Arctic is experiencing today, serving as a good analogue for future climate change.
“The oldest episode recorded (Eemian) is very important because it was a strong interglacial in the Arctic, with very similar climate characteristics to what is happening today,” Dessandier said. “The idea with the Eemian interglacial is to… compare that with what could happen in the future. Seafloor methane emission is important to consider for modeling spatial estimations of future climate.”
To track past methane release, Dessandier measured isotopes of carbon (carbon molecules with slightly different compositions) in the shells of tiny ocean-dwellers called foraminifera. Because the foraminifera build their shells using ingredients from the water around them, the carbon signal in the shells reflects the chemistry of the ocean while they were alive. After they die, those shells are preserved in seafloor sediments, slowly building a record spanning tens of thousands of years.
To reach that record, Dessandier and the team needed to drill a deep core off the western coast of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The team collected two cores: a 60-meter reference core, which they used to date and correlate stratigraphy, and a 22-meter core spanning the LGM and the Eemian deglaciations. The site for the 22-meter core was chosen based on its “pockmark” feature, marking where the gas escaped violently in the past, and massive carbonate rocks that form where methane is still leaking out today.
Carbon isotopes of microscopic shells in the long core revealed multiple episodes of methane release, which geochemists recognize from their distinct spikes in the record. Because methane is still seeping from the sediments, Dessandier needed to to make sure the signal wasn’t from modern interference. He compared the shells’ carbon isotope values to measurements his colleagues made on carbonate minerals that formed outside the shells, after the foraminifera had died, when methane emission was at its most intense.
The isotopic record showed that as ice melted and pressure on the seafloor lessened, methane was released in violent spurts, slow seeps, or—most likely—a combination of both. By the time the ice disappeared completely, some thousands of years later, methane emissions had stabilized.
How much methane eventually made it to the atmosphere, which is what would contribute to the greenhouse effect, remains uncertain. Part of the problem in quantifying this is the microbial communities that live on the seafloor and in the water, and that use methane to survive.
“For the microbes, it’s an oasis. It’s fantastic,” Dessandier said. “So they grow like crazy, and some species produce methane and others consume it.” That activity complicates the core’s detailed carbon record. In sediments, a bustling community with lots of methane recycling could overprint the original signal; in the water column, where nutrients may be less plentiful, methane could get gobbled up or transformed into carbon dioxide before it reaches the atmosphere.
Despite modern complications, the team has pinpointed two methane releases associated with ice retreat, like they hypothesize could happen today. The best part for Dessandier was discovering layers of massive bivalves in the cores which, based on modern observations from remotely operated vehicles, can indicate a methane leak. “It was super interesting for us to observe these same sorts of layers at the LGM and the Eemian,” he said. “It confirmed what we thought at the beginning, with a methane-rich seafloor allowing this community to develop… We can say that these events are very similar, with similar processes happening during both periods of warming. So this is something to consider for our current warming. It could happen again.”
The number of methane plumes emitted from Russian gas infrastructure rose by 40% in 2020, satellite monitoring has revealed, raising concerns over the global warming impact.
Increasingly frequent methane releases from venting, flaring or leakage along two major gas pipelines came despite an estimated 14% drop in exports to Europe.
Analysis firm Kayrros detected 13 methane emission events around the Yamal-Europe pipeline – a 4,196 km pipeline running through Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany – and a further 33 around the Brotherhood pipeline, 2,750-km long gas pipeline through Russia, Ukraine and Slovakia.
Operators told Kayrros these methane releases were related to planned maintenance and had been reported to the relevant authorities.
Analysts said a number of factors could have contributed to the spike in methane emissions over Russia, including a drop in oil and gas prices and a lack of maintenance of gas pipelines during the pandemic.
“With oil prices slumping to historic lows in 2020, this places additional financial pressure on producers, potentially leading to reduced maintenance and repairs on equipment, and flare monitoring, all of which could lead to higher levels of venting,” Ryan Wilson, an energy policy analyst at Climate Analytics, told Climate Home News.
Falling oil and gas prices often go hand in hand with an increase of flaring and venting, which involve burning methane or directly releasing the potent gas into the atmosphere, said Jonathan Banks, senior policy advisor at the US-based Clean Air Task Force. “We have seen this in south Texas.”
Methane, which is released into the atmosphere from abandoned coal mines, farming and oil and gas operations, has a global warming impact 84 times higher than CO2 over a 20-year period. It accounts for 25% of global warming emissions from human activities, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in January that Russia is the world’s largest methane emitter. Last year the country produced 13,953 kt of methane emissions, almost 20% of the 70 Mt of methane released into the atmosphere worldwide last year. After Russia, the biggest emitters were the US, Iran and Turkmenistan.
“We have no chance of meeting our climate targets or targets for decarbonisation if we don’t start to deal with methane emissions in countries that produce large amounts of oil and gas like Russia,” Banks told Climate Home News.
Methane emission hotspots detected by Kayrros along the Yamal-Europe and Brotherhood gas pipelines in Russia. (Image: Kayrros)
The oil and gas industry could achieve a 75% reduction in methane emissions by 2030 using existing technology, according to the IEA.
In 2012, Russia started fining companies that flared more than 5% of gas they produced, according to Wilson. But there are no regulations in place to reduce leaks from natural gas compressors and pneumatic devices into the atmosphere, he said.
“Considering global reports and accounts of Russia’s performance though, such policies do not appear to be effective – the problem is only getting worse,” Poppy Kalesi, director of global energy at EDF, told Climate Home.
As the world’s largest importer of gas, the EU plays a major role in influencing the climate policies of other countries. Analysts say that to date the EU has done little to pressure Russia to curb its methane emissions.
“What the European Commission proposes is to use soft power measures to raise awareness and secure a collaborative approach. And this is not enough,” said Kalesi. “The EU should in the very least agree on a minimum methane performance standards and taxes or levies on all EU gas buyers who fail to procure compliant gas.”
The EU Commission said last year that it was considering imposing binding methane emissions standards on oil and gas imports and introducing legislation requiring fossil fuel companies to report and repair methane leaks.
Wilson said that the introduction of binding standards would “force Russia to ensure it is accurately quantifying its methane emissions and implement measures to meet such standards”.
By Richard Gray30th November 2020On a remote peninsular in the Arctic circle, enormous wounds are appearing in the permafrost – as something that is worrying scientists bursts out from underground.I
It appeared suddenly and explosively, leaving a ragged pockmark on the landscape.
Around the crater’s edge, the earth is a torn, grey jumble of ice and clods of permafrost. The roots of plants – newly exposed around the rim – show signs of scorching. It gives some idea of just how violently this hole in the middle of the Siberian Arctic materialised.
From the air, the freshly exposed dirt stands out against the green tundra and dark lakes around it. The layers of earth and rock exposed further inside the cylindrical hole are almost black and a pool of water is already forming at the bottom by the time scientists reach it.
Among them is Evgeny Chuvilin, a geologist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, based in Moscow, Russia, who has flown out to this remote corner of the Yamal Peninsula in north-west Siberia to take a look. This 164-foot-deep (50m) hole could hold key parts of a puzzle that has been bothering him for the past six years since the first of these mysterious holes was discovered elsewhere on the Yamal Peninsula.
That hole, which was around 66ft (20m) wide and up to 171ft (52m) deep, was discovered by helicopter pilots passing overhead in 2014, around 26 miles (42km) from the Bovanenkovo gas field on the Yamal Peninsula. The scientists who visited it – including Mariana Leibman, chief scientist of the Earth Cryosphere Institute, who has been studying the permafrost in Siberia for more than 40 years – described it as an entirely new feature in permafrost. Analysis of satellite images later revealed that crater – now known as GEC-1 – formed sometime between 9 October and 1 November 2013.
The latest crater was spotted in August this year by a TV crew as they flew past with a team of scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences during an expedition with local authorities in Yamal. It brings the total number of confirmed craters to have been discovered on Yamal and the neighbouring Gydan Peninsula to 17.
Scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oil and Gas Problems visited the newest crater during an expedition to Yamal in August 2020 (Credit: Evgeny Chuvilin)
But exactly what is causing these enormous holes in the permafrost to appear and how suddenly they form is still largely a riddle. There are also unanswered questions about what they mean for the future of the Arctic, along with the people who live and work there. For many of those who study the Arctic, they are a disquieting sign that this cold, largely unpopulated landscape at the north of our planet is undergoing some radical changes.
Recent research, however, is now starting to provide some clues about what might be going on. What is clear is that these holes are not forming due to some gradual subsidence as the permafrost melts and shifts below the surface. They explode into being.
“As the blast occurs, blocks of soil and ice are thrown hundreds of metres from the epicenter,” says Chuvilin. “We are faced here with a colossal force, created by very high pressure. Why it is so high still remains a mystery.”https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.39.19/iframe.htmlThe mystery of Siberia’s exploding earth
Chuvilin is one of a group of Russian scientists – collaborating with colleagues from around the world – who have been visiting these craters to take samples and measurements in the hope of understanding more about what is going on beneath the tundra.
Some scientists have compared the craters to cryovolcanoes – volcanoes that spew ice instead of lava – thought to exist in some of the distant parts of our solar system on Pluto, Saturn’s moon Titan and the dwarf planet Ceres. But as more Arctic craters have been studied in various stages of their evolution, they have become known as “gas emission craters”. The name gives some clue to how they are thought to form.
There is evidence that the life cycle of gas emission crater can be very short, ranging from 3-5 years – Alexander Kizyakov
It is clear that the mounds in north-west Siberia are behaving differently. They swell “very fast, rising to several metres” before they blow their top suddenly, explains Chuvilin. And instead of freezing water, the uplift appears to be caused by a build-up of gas beneath the ground.
“Pingos take decades to form and last a long time,” says Sue Natali, an Arctic ecologist who studies permafrost and director of the Arctic programme at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “These gas-filled mounds form in the order of years.”
One study of tree rings in willow shrubs found among the debris thrown out by the explosion that created the first crater discovered in 2014 suggests the plants had been experiencing stress since the 1940s. The researchers say this could have been due to deformation of the ground.
“However, there is evidence that the life cycle of gas emission craters can be very short, ranging from 3-5 years,” says Alexander Kizyakov, a cryolithologist at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia. One crater that formed in the early summer of 2017, known as SeYkhGEC, was found in satellite images to have first begun deforming the ground in 2015.
To understand more about how the craters form, scientists have lowered themselves into the deep holes to take samples (Credit: Sylvia Buchholz/Alamy)
Similar scars and mounds related to gas pocket emissions have been found on the floor of the Kara Sea, just off the Yamal Peninsula, and others have been found in the Barents Sea. But so far, says Natali, nothing similar has been found on land elsewhere in the Arctic.
Something about the permafrost in Yamal and Gydan makes them prone to these exploding mounds. “There are some characteristic features of the landscape there,” she says. “It is an area where there is a very thick layer of ice, called tabular ice, which forms a cap across the permafrost. It is also an area where there’s a lot of features known as cryopeg, which are areas of unfrozen ground surrounded by permafrost – a kind of permafrost sandwich. The third feature is very deep deposits of gas and oil.”
One crater recently examined by Chuvilin – a 66ft-wide (20m) hole known as the Erkuta crater after the river whose flood plain it appeared on – appears to have formed on the spot of a dried up oxbow lake. When the lake vanished, it left behind an unfrozen patch of soil beneath it known as a talik, where gas then built up. But Chauvilin says the exact source is still largely unclear. “The key issue in crater research is identifying the source of gas that builds up under the permafrost surface,” says Chuvilin. “Once the crater is there, the gas is already gone.”
Local reindeer herders reported seeing flames and smoke after one crater explosion in June 2017
Retracing the evolution of these mounds and how the gas gets there is now an intense source of study. “It is intriguing that there could be a new or previously unknown geochemical process happening that we would never have imagined,” says Natali.
Researchers brave enough to abseil down into the craters have found elevated levels of methane in the water pooling at the bottom, suggesting the gas may be bubbling up from below. One leading theory is that these deep deposits of methane gas under the permafrost find their way up to the unfrozen pocket of ground beneath the icy cap. Another idea is that high levels of carbon dioxide dissolved in the water in these unfrozen pockets begins to bubble out as the water starts to freeze, and the remaining water cannot hold onto the dissolved gas.
“It is thought that there may be different formation mechanisms which can hardly be described by a single model,” says Chuvilin. “Much depends on the environment and landscape.” At least one crater has been found in a riverbed, he points out.
Regardless of the source, it is thought that the gas builds up in the unfrozen pocket of ground, pushing the solid tabular ice cap upwards by 16-19ft (5-6m) until it ruptures like a boil. (While graphic, the furuncle analogy is not a bad one – much like internet users are fascinated by videos of pimple popping, so some scientists find themselves drawn to the Yamal craters. “It was the combination of the unknown and risk related to these craters that attracted me,” admits Natali.)
Over a year or two the edges of the dark, angry wound erode and they fill with water
In this sparsely populated region of the world, for one to occur so close to a settlement has led to concern. The region is also splattered with pipelines for the oil and gas infrastructure trying to get at the fossil fuel deposits buried beneath the permafrost.
“We don’t yet know if these are something that could be a risk to people in the Arctic,” says Natali. She and her colleagues have been trying to answer this particular question by searching for signs of other craters in high resolution satellite images.
“Once we find something that looks like a crater, we are then using time series very high-resolution imagery [satellite pictures of the same location taken at different times] to try to work out when they formed,” she says. Their work seems to be suggesting that there are more craters out there than was previously believed. “We have so far confirmed and validated two new crater locations. Considering that back in 2013 we knew nothing about them, it seems very likely that there are more out there.”
Natali’s team went on to discover a third new crater, in results released in February 2021. They had identified a further 17 possible craters, but analysis of high resolution images led them to conclude they may not have formed from explosive gas emissions. “It’s hard to fully validate until we can be on the ground,” adds Natali. Their research has identified a number of other abrupt landscape changes in the region that had not been detected before related to the thawing of the permafrost. In total they spotted a 5% change in the landscape between 1984 and 2007.
Eventually Natali and her team hope to gather enough data to be able to automate the crater search process. Their aim is to create an algorithm that can predict craters before they form by looking out for likely gas emission mounds in satellite images.
Gas and oil infrastructure dot the landscape in north-west Siberia – the Bovanenkovo gas field was just 26 miles from one of the craters (Credit: Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images)
“We hope to get to a point where we can see these before they form,” says Natali. “That is the sort of information you particularly want to know when these are happening in an area where there are people living, there are pipelines, and other gas and oil infrastructure.”
Unravelling exactly how common these craters are is currently a slow process. After their violent birth, most seem to disappear into the landscape almost as quickly – the void left by the explosion near Seyakha – which measured 70m (230ft) wide in places and more than 50m (164ft) deep – flooded with water in just four days due to its proximity to the river. This transition from hole to lake seems to be a rather innocuous end to a dramatic event.
Other craters take longer to flood, but over a year or two the edges of the dark, angry wound erode and they fill with water to become almost indistinguishable from the thousands of other small round lakes – known as thermokarst lakes – that dot the landscape. Exactly how many of these lakes are the scars of gas emission craters is still unclear.
“It is likely that some of the lakes in the permafrost are flooded gas emission craters,” says Kizyakov. “It is too early to say how common this is as a mechanism of lake formation.”
Some researchers have tried to identify former gas emission craters by measuring the chemicals dissolved in characteristic lakes, but have been unable to identify any patterns.
The craters are a very shocking indicator of what is happening in the Arctic more widely – Sue Natali
Finding out just how common these events are is driven by more than simple curiosity. There are growing concerns that the appearance of the craters in north-west Siberia might be related to wider changes taking place in the Arctic due to climate change.
Surface air temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the rate of the global average, which is increasing the amount of permafrost thaw during the summer months.
“There is nowhere else on the planet I know of that climate change is causing the physical structure of the ground to change,” says Natali.
Trapped inside the Arctic permafrost are huge amounts of carbon – about twice as much as the amount currently in the atmosphere. It is mostly in the form of the frozen remains of plants and other organic material, along with methane that has become trapped inside ice crystals – the gas hydrates that Chuvilin mentions earlier. As the ground thaws, it allows microorganisms to break down the organic matter, releasing methane and carbon dioxide as byproducts, while the methane trapped in the ice also breaks free.
When they first appear, the craters are a spectacular sight as the explosion hurls out earth and ice to leave a deep cylindrical void (Credit: Vasili Bogoyavlensky/Getty Images)
As a potent greenhouse gas, this methane leaking out of permafrost has the potential to accelerate global warming and so drive even more melting.
“The craters are a very shocking indicator of what is happening in the Arctic more widely,” says Natali. “When you look at changes that are happening across this landscape, some are occurring gradually and others abruptly. Very few are occurring explosively, but it brings attention to how all these changes contribute to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
While the mystery of Yamal’s craters is still to be completely solved, what has been unravelled so far suggests that perhaps we should be watching them carefully in the future.
* This article was updated on 4 December to reflect the latest results from Sue Natali’s team that indicates the 17 possible gas emitting craters they had identified are not likely to have formed in this way. A further update was made on 16 February to include details of a third new gas emitting crater discovered by Natali’s team.
(CNN)The massive crater appeared violently and explosively in the Siberian tundra last year — a powerful blowout of methane gas throwing ice and rock hundreds of feet away and leaving a gaping circular scar in the empty and eerie landscape.It was the 17th hole to appear in the remote Yamal and Gyda peninsulas in the Russian Arctic since the first was spotted in 2013, mystifying scientists. The craters arethought to be linked to climate change. Drone photography, 3D modeling and artificial intelligence are helping to reveal their secrets.”The new crater is uniquely well preserved, as surface water hadn’t yet accumulated in the crater when we surveyed it, which allowed us to study a ‘fresh’ crater, untouched by degradation,” said Evgeny Chuvilin, lead research scientist at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology’s Center for Hydrocarbon Recovery in Moscow.It was also the first time researchers have been able to fly a drone deep into a crater — reaching 10 to 15 meters below ground, allowing them to capture the shape of the underground cavity where methanehad built up.Content by BiossanceSay goodbye to dark spots with this new serum2020 was a tough year for our skin. At first we went into lockdown and, understandably, our skin care routines and healthy habits took a hit.Chuvilin was part of a team of Russian scientists who visited the crater in August 2020. Their findings were published in the journal Geosciences last week.
The drone took around 80 images, allowing the researchers to build a 3D model of the crater, which is 30 meters deep — imagine three buses end to end.Study author Igor Bogoyavlensky, of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, served as the drone pilot and said he had to lie down on the edge of the 10-story deep crater and dangle his arms over the edge to control the drone.”Three times we got close to losing it, but succeeded in getting the data for the 3D model,” he said.The model, which showed unusual grottoes or caverns in the lower part of the crater, largely confirmed what scientists had hypothesized: Methane gas builds in a cavity in the ice, causing a mound to appear at ground level. The mound grows in size before blowing out ice and other debris in an explosion and leaving behind the massive crater.What’s still unclear is the source of the methane. It could come from deep layers within the Earth or closer to the surface — or a combination of the two.Permafrost is a huge natural reservoir of methane, a potent greenhouse gas much more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat and warming the planet.Warmer summers — the Arctic is warming two times faster than the global average — have weakened the permafrost layer, which acts as a cap, making it easier for gas to escape. Some experts estimate that soils in the permafrost region hold twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does, making the region extremely important in the fight against climate change.”Climate change, of course, has an impact on the probability of gas blowout craters appearing in the Arctic permafrost,” Chuvilin said.With the use of satellite imagery, the researchers were also able to pinpoint when the crater formed. They believe the mound would have exploded at some point between May 15 and June 9, 2020. The crater was first spotted during a helicopter flight on July 16, 2020.The timing was not random, according to Chuvilin. “This is the time of the year when there’s a lot of solar energy influx, which causes the snow to melt and the upper layers of the ground to heat up, and that causes changes in their properties and behavior.”While these craters have appeared in a very sparsely populated region, they do pose risks to Indigenous people and to oil and gas infrastructure. The holes are usually found by accident during helicopter flights or by reindeer herders.
Mapping and predicting crater blowouts
While 17 craters have been documented so far, it’s not known how many there are in total or when the next one could blow out.Scientists don’t yet have good tools for detecting and mapping the gas emission craters, although a team at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts is trying to change that.To log changes in the Arctic landscape, and perhaps ultimately predict where the next blowout crater might occur, the researchers have devised an algorithm to quantify changes to features such as the height of mounds and the expansion or shrinking of lakes on the Yamal and Gyda peninsulas.The crater is 30 meters deep. Scientists made a 3D model of it by using images taken by a drone.The scientists’ model correctly predicted all seven craters that had been reported by scientists by 2017 and revealed the formation of three new ones.The researchers also found that the craters are just one unsettling sign that the northernmost reaches of our planet are undergoing radical changes.Some 5% of the 327,000 square kilometers the team surveyed saw abrupt changes in landscape between 1984 and 2017. These changes included ground collapses, the formation of new lakes and disappearance of others, plus the erosion of river bends, according to the research, which published in the Geosciences journal in January.
The Siberian tundra is still out here exploding. A new study from the Woodwell Climate Research Center has identified three new craters in the region’s increasingly volatile permafrost, and the climate crisis is to blame.
Researchers have been seeing giant holes form in western Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula for years. The first, discovered by workers back in 2014, measured 262 feet (80 meters) in diameter. Since then, scientists have found another six craters on Yamal and the nearby Gydan peninsula, most recently discovering a crater as deep as half a football field last year. While researchers have suspected explosive methane gas has welled up into the tundra as it thaws and caused the explosions, it’s been an area of active research.
“These craters represent an Earth system process that was previously unknown to scientists,” Sue Natali, Arctic program director at Woodwell Climate Research Center and co-author on the study, said in an emailed statement.
To learn more about how these holes form, the researchers used satellite data from Siberia’s Yamal and Gydan peninsulas—a combined area of 126,255 square miles (327,000 square kilometers)—to create an artificial intelligence-based model of the region with Google Earth Engine’s cloud computing platform. The model located all seven of the previously-discovered craters, and also indicated that three more of them have formed.
In addition to uncovering the three new holes, the model showed previously unseen stark changes across the two peninsulas. It found that between 1984 and 2017, about 5% of the examined area has seen observable ecosystem changes, including “shifts in vegetation, elevation, and water extent.” Entire lakes have disappeared, draining out completely as the permafrost—frozen ground made of soil, rocks, and water—that forms their outer edges and bottoms melted away amid rising temperatures. Huge swaths of the region have also become greener because higher air and soil temperatures have increased plant growth. Due to permafrost thaw and ice melt, parts of the region are also sinking.
All of these changes spell trouble for Arctic ecosystems and the rest of the world. As lakes drain, fish and other wildlife are being left without a home and Indigenous communities have seen their water supplies dry up. Arctic greening is also an issue, since taller and heartier foliage can trap more snow beneath them. That in turn can lead to more rapid thawing of permafrost because the snow acts like a blanket that can actually keep the ground relatively warmer than the frigid air above it.
As the planet continues to warm, the researchers expect these changes will occur more quickly. That includes the methane explosions, since they’re more likely to occur when the ground’s pressure rises or ice on the ground thaws and breaks suddenly. Many of these changes won’t be reversible, either. So for the sake of the Arctic and the rest of the planet, we better get global warming under control. Dharna Noor
By Matthew Fulkerson, Just a former physicist turned applied mathematician
Often one hears that methane (CH4) is many times worse than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas. For example, the Wikipedia article on atmospheric methane states that over a 20 year period, CH4 is 84 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. However, over 100 years, this potency drops to 28 times stronger.
What is really going on here mathematically? That is the subject of this article.
There is a chemical reaction that converts CH4 to CO2 and H2O in the atmosphere at some rate k1. Let y be the concentration of methane in the atmosphere. Let k2 be the rate of emission.
The governing differential equation for this problem is:
dy/dt = -k1*y + k2
… where t is time. That is, the rate of change of the concentration of methane in the atmosphere has two contributions:
The chemical reaction that converts CH4 to CO2, which is proportional to the concentration of methane
The emission rate of methane
The solution to this differential equation is:
y(t) = k2/k1 + (y0 – k2/k1)e^(-k1*t)
With differential equations, it is often hard to find the solution, but fairly easy to check them. To review, the derivative (rate of change) of a constant is zero. The derivative of e^x with respect to x is e^x! If you want to take the derivative of e^x(t) with respect to time, you need to use the chain rule. Thus:
d(e^x(t))/dt = e^x(t)*dx/dt
So, the derivative of y(t), as given by the equation above, is:
dy/dt = 0 +(y0 – k2/k1)e^(-k1*t)*(-k1)
dy/dt = -k1*(y0 – k2/k1)e^(-k1*t)
dy/dt = -k1*(y(t) – k2/k1)
or dy/dt = -k1*y + k2.
… which is the original differential equation. Hence the solution indeed satisfies the differential equation.
This solution says that the long-term concentration of methane, under a stable emissions scenario, is k2/k1. Any deviation from this concentration will decay away.
Thus, the math shows that the equilibrium concentration of methane is proportional to the emission rate k2, and inversely proportional to the decay rate k1. Any deviation from equilibrium follows an exponential decay law.
So, what is the takeaway from the mathematics?
Let us assume that the decay rate k1 is roughly constant. In reality, k1 depends on things like temperature and the concentration of O2, CO2, H2O, and hydroxyl radicals in the atmosphere, but let’s ignore these effects for simplicity and think of k1 as the average decay rate.
In any case, the way people can effect the amount of methane in the atmosphere is through the emission rate k2. Keep k2 the same, and the temperature of the planet due to CH4 will not increase, except for the fact that CH4 decays to less potent CO2. In contrast, if k2 increases for example due to human activities like methane leaks from fracking and pipelines and agriculture, then the Earth will come to a new warmer equilibrium. Conversely, if k2 decreases via plugging methane leaks, then the Earth will cool because the new equilibrium concentration of methane will be less!
The conclusion is that, in a business-as-usual scenario (constant emissions), global warming due to methane is not an increasing problem, except for the fact that methane decays to CO2. But this does not mean we shouldn’t take action on methane, because any reduction in the methane emission rate will cool the planet.
Stay tuned for a future article that will estimate the values of k1 and k2, and investigate the application of this mathematical solution to estimating the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas over various time frames.
This month witnessed the launch of the first-ever “Gas Index”, which ranks American metropolitan areas on the leakiness of the gas supply chains that service their cities. This new index — which Burlington, Vt., ranks in the middle of — takes into account methane leakage across the full life cycle of fossil gas, from oil and gas production areas, to gas transmission pipelines and distribution within cities.
This is a critical contribution to the climate action agenda. Any serious effort to cool the planet requires getting off fossil gas, about 95 percent of which is methane. Not only is methane responsible for air pollution that causes premature deaths and significant respiratory problems, it’s much more powerful than carbon dioxide in its global warming effects. After methane leaks, it’s over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its ability to warm the planet.
So, which American metropolitan areas are the leakiest?
Based on data available for leakage rates for residential and commercial use, measured across the whole life cycle, it’s the following: The urban areas of Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Miami and Oklahoma City rank the highest in terms of the rate of methane leakage, while New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Haven (Conn.) and Hartford (Conn.) rank the lowest in leakage rates.
Keep in mind that while cities are named in the ranking, it’s the industries and utilities controlling the infrastructure — the production areas, transmission, distribution, gas meters and buildings — that are ultimately responsible for the leaks. While many of these leaks can and should be fixed in the short term, the real fix is in getting off gas entirely, electrifying our buildings and powering that electricity with clean energy — which is what Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance members are now prioritizing. It should be noted that I work for the organization.
The health benefits of doing so are significant.
When gas is extracted from the ground, burned in power plants or burned directly in buildings, human health is compromised. People who live close to gas wells, as one example, experience an “increased incidence of childhood leukemia, asthma attacks, congenital heart defects, low birth weight, and preterm birth”. But we also know that emissions from commercial and residential heating and cooking are responsible for some of the 200,000 premature air-pollution-related deaths each year in the U.S.
Additionally, gas-burning stoves and ovens create indoor air pollution, with nitrogen dioxide — a toxic gas — rising to dangerous levels, three times what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved for outdoor air. And as Rocky Mountain Institute researchers documented, indoor air pollution from gas stoves is particularly detrimental to children, leading to learning deficits, increased risk of asthma, aggravated respiratory systems, increased susceptibility to lung infections and allergens and cardiovascular effects.
By electrifying our heating and cooking, then, and powering it instead with clean energy, not only would we see a sizable reduction in greenhouse emissions, we’d be able to save American lives. And in Vermont, electrifying all households would lead to $973 million in savings per year, or $3,603 per household, according to a new report by Rewiring America. For all of these reasons — including the security risk of exploding gas pipelines — cities across the U.S. are taking bold action to get off fossil gas.
San Francisco announced last month, for example, that they’re banning gas in new buildings starting next year, following in the footsteps of other California cities, such as Berkeley, San Jose, Mountain View, Santa Rosa and Brisbane. As the gas industry responds by ratcheting up its fight against such life-saving efforts by municipalities, lawmakers across U.S. cities are considering similar bans.
Going forward, it’s imperative that we prioritize Americans’ health over industry interests and the Gas Index shows where that work is needed most. No amount of industry angling — claiming that fossil gas is “natural” and a bridge that’s somehow better than other fossil fuels — can cover up the fact that methane is hurting our health and our efforts to keep global warming in check. Electrifying buildings, so that heating and cooking is cleaner and healthier, is the answer. That’s the only bridge to a cleaner future and cooler planet.
Michael Shank is communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
Millions of tons of organic carbon and methane beneath the Arctic Ocean thaw out and ooze to the surface each year. And climate change could speed up this release of greenhouse gases, new research suggests.
The carbon tied up in organic matter and methane (a carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms) are currently trapped in subsea permafrost, which is frozen sediment that became covered by 390 feet (120 meters) of seawater toward the end of the Paleolithic ice age about 1,800 to 1,400 years ago, according to the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS). Most subsea permafrost sits on the continental shelf under the Arctic Ocean, said study author Sayedeh Sara Sayedi, a doctoral student in the department of plant and wildlife science at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City.
Because that sediment is in such an inaccessible spot, there’s only a little bit of patchy data on how much carbon and methane lie buried there and how quickly those gases are escaping into the ocean and atmosphere above, Sayedi added.
Somescientists consider this greenhouse gas reservoir to be a ticking time bomb, one that could suddenly spew into the atmosphere and trigger a climate catastrophe. But Sayedi and her colleagues propose a different scenario: Rather than a sudden release, these gases have been slowly and steadily oozing from the permafrost for centuries. Human-caused climate change could still make the situation worse by accelerating the rate of release, but this acceleration would occur over the course of several centuries, not decades or years.
“Still, the decisions we make today will make a difference in how it’s going to be affected,” Sayedi told Live Science.
In their new study, published Dec. 22 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the team attempted to assemble a comprehensive picture of the subsea permafrost using all the piecemeal data currently available; they also asked 25 permafrost scientists to use their expertise to estimate how much organic carbon is hidden in each specific layer of subsea permafrost. By compiling their perspectives, the team captured a more detailed picture of the ecosystem as a whole, and they estimated that the permafrost currently holds about 60 billion tons (544 metric tons) of methane and 560 billion tons (508 metric tons) of organic carbon.
Each year, about 140 million tons (128 metric tons) of carbon dioxide and 5.3 million tons (4.8 metric tons) of methane escape from the permafrost into the atmosphere, they estimated. That’s roughly equivalent to the carbon footprint of Spain, according to a statement. That said, due to the paucity of data, these emissions estimates remain highly uncertain, the authors noted. RELATED CONTENT
The authors also concluded that, rather than being driven primarily by recent human activity, much of these greenhouse gas emissions began after the Last Glacial Maximum, when ice sheets were at their greatest extent. However, human-driven changes may still drive up these emissions “several hundreds or thousands of years from now,” they wrote.
In fact, over the next 300 years, the experts expect the rate of greenhouse gas emission from subsea permafrost to increase substantially if carbon emissions from human activity continue as usual. If emissions rise throughout the 21st century, the permafrost would release four times more greenhouse gas than if emissions started declining by the end of this year and reached net-zero by 2100.
In the business-as-usual scenario, the increase in emissions would ramp up over the next several centuries, but still not enough to create a so-called “methane bomb.”
By overlooking subsea permafrost in models of climate change, scientists run the risk of miscalculating the amount of greenhouse gas being emitted into the atmosphere, which may skew where we set our targets for reducing emissions, Sayedi said. In the next five to 10 years, Sayedi said that she hopes additional research into subsea permafrost can help fill the gaps in our knowledge and provide more certainty about how much carbon is actually down there — and how much is getting out. Other factors, such as the extent of sea-ice cover, may also affect how much gas leaks into the atmosphere, since the ice can act as a ceiling trapping the gas underneath, she said.
The moon could be affecting how much methane is released from the Arctic Ocean seafloor, a new study finds.
The tides, which are controlled by the moon, affect how much methane is released from seafloor sediments: Low tides mean less pressure and more methane released, while high tides create more pressure, and therefore less methane emission.
The research was conducted in the west-Svalbard region of the Arctic, with the findings published Oct. 9 in the journal Nature Communications.
“It is the first time that this observation has been made in the Arctic Ocean. It means that slight pressure changes can release significant amounts of methane. This is a game-changer and the highest impact of the study,” study coauthor, Jochen Knies, a marine geologist at the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate (CAGE), said in a statement.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming by trapping and holding heat in the atmosphere. Huge methane reserves lurk beneath the seafloor and ocean warming is expected to unlock some of that trapped methane. So understanding how the tides impact these seafloor methane emissions is important for future climate predictions.
To find this tidal effect, the team measured the pressure and temperature inside the sediments and found that gas levels near the seafloor rise and fall with the tides.
By using a permanent monitoring tool they were able to identify methane release in an area of the Arctic Ocean where it has not previously been observed.
“This tells us that gas release from the seafloor is more widespread than we can see using traditional sonar surveys,” study co-author, Andreia Plaza Faverola, a marine geologist and geophysicist at CAGE, said in the statement. Image 1 of 2
Their discovery implies that scientists have been underestimating greenhouse gas emissions in the Arctic. RELATED CONTENT
“What we found was unexpected and the implications are big. This is a deep-water site. Small changes in pressure can increase the gas emissions but the methane will still stay in the ocean due to the water depth. But what happens in shallower sites? This approach needs to be done in shallow Arctic waters as well, over a longer period. In shallow water, the possibility that methane will reach the atmosphere is greater,” Knies said.
This newly discovered phenomenon also raises questions about how rising sea levels and ocean warming, both of which are caused by climate change, will interact. Because high tides reduce methane emissions, it’s possible rising sea levels, which come with higher tides, might partially counterbalance the threat of increased gas emissions being caused by a warming ocean.