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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

No, 'methane bombs' aren't a catastrophic climate change problem… unless we make them so

By Phil Plait
Methane bubbles up from sediment off the Virginia coastline in the US. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 ROV Shakedown and Field Trials

A few years ago I was watching a documentary of some kind or another, and they were talking about something they said was a big concern: huge amounts of methane buried beneath the Siberian permafrost that was starting to leak out. I don’t remember much about the show, except they were clearly saying this was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

I’m not a climate scientist, but I have some science background, and could see this sounded like a big problem. Since that time I’ve seen more and more about this online, and every time I hear about it it seems to be bigger, more devastating, with more breathless coverage every time.

But … is it really a problem?

To my surprise (and tentative relief), it’s not nearly as bad as these shows claimed, though some folks still play it up.

So, what does the science say?

Methane hydrate structure (left) is a cage of interconnected water molecules trapping a methane molecule inside. If exposed to heat, the methane hydrate ice burns. Credit: Beauchamp (structure), USGS (fire)

This whole thing centers on methane hydrates. It’s an interesting bit of chemistry, where, under enough pressure, water molecules combine with methane to form a weird structure that acts like a cage surrounding methane molecules, trapping them inside. It forms if you have methane under cold water at depths of about 500 meters or so.

Those conditions are not common, but do happen along continental slopes, where the continental plates meet the sea. During the last ice age sea levels were lower (the water was locked up in ice), so in many regions those slopes were grasslands. It was cold in the northern regions, tundra, but animals fed on the grass there. When they died, their bodies were preserved in the cold.

Global locations of methane hydrate deposits, almost always on continental slopes. Credit: Council of Canadian Academies (2008), based on data from Kvenvolden and Rogers (2005) / Global Carbon Project

Eventually the glaciers retreated, sea levels rose, and water inundated those areas. Bacteria slowly ate the remains, creating methane, and under the cold water of the coasts this formed methane hydrates. These hydrates are stable as long as a) they are under the pressure of water above them, and 2) that water is cold.

There’s the problem: The waters there aren’t as cold as they once were due to global warming. We’re seeing some places releasing that methane, into the water or, in some places where we’re losing permafrost due to warming, into the air.

Here’s the problem: Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Molecule for molecule, it’s about 25 times better at trapping heat than CO2! As methane is released in the air, it accelerates warming, and that means more methane is released, and that means it gets even warmer, and … feedback loop.

Methane bubbles up from sediment off the Virginia coastline in the US. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 ROV Shakedown and Field Trials

Now, here is where our story diverges. Some folks — like ones who run less-than-scientifically-based YouTube channels, and some TV networks who love this sort of story, like the one I saw a few years ago — say this is a massive and inevitable catastrophe, even calling these deposits “methane bombs.” We’re doomed, they say, because this feedback loop will eat itself faster and faster, and in a few years we’ll have global warming ramping up so rapidly that there’s nothing we can do.

Other folks — scientists, for example, people who have dedicated their careers to studying this — have a slightly different story. Methane release from methane hydrates is a concern, they say, but not necessarily a catastrophic one. It depends on our own actions.

You can guess where I land with this now. Psssst: science.

Peter Sinclair, who runs the Climate Crocks website, which debunks climate science denial, has a great page about this. He interviewed scientists who study this and put together a video that explains the situation really well.

The first couple of minutes show the problem, and what the catastrophists are claiming, and the rest goes into why this isn’t an “OhMyGodWe’reAllGonnaDie!” situation.

Basically, as geologist Carolyn Ruppel says, getting methane hydrates to release their gas rapidly is actually really hard; the reaction needs energy to occur, so it steals heat from its surroundings. That makes things colder, which slows the process! So it’s very hard to get a runaway reaction.

As she and climatologist James Hanson point out in the video, the real accelerator of this is our own dumping of CO2 in the air that’s warming the planet. If we can slow that down, then the waters in the arctic won’t warm as much, and there won’t be much release of the methane in the first place.

That leads to an interesting irony. More than one, in fact. My friend and climatologist Michael Mann explains in a supplementary video Sinclair posted:

So, do you see the irony?

Catastrophists in general accept the consensus that the planet is warming up and humans — us, you and me — are to blame, but then they drop the science to exaggerate the problem. That’s called cherry-picking, and it’s a no-no; you can’t just pick and choose which bits of science to believe. That’s the first irony; the catastrophists use the same sort of science denial climate science deniers sometimes employ!

The second irony is that this sort of over-amping of the climate fears actually leads to more denial! After all, if there’s nothing we can do to prevent catastrophe, well then, smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em. Burn all the fossil fuels you want, dig up more, whatever. It doesn’t matter anyway.

But it does. If we can mitigate the amount of global warming we’re causing, then the permafrost methane deposits won’t be that big a problem. But that’s only true if we take the reins and reduce our carbon footprints. If we don’t, then yeah, those methane deposits will indeed be a problem, but only because we didn’t take action.

In northern Siberia, lakes are scattered around Omulyakhskaya (top) and Khromskaya (bottom) Bays. Melting permafrost supplies water to the lakes, which are also the sites of methane release. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon

So the catastrophe-mongering is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And weirdly one that plays right into the hands of climate science deniers, because, as Mann says, the fossil fuel interests can say, hey, CO2 isn’t a problem, it’s the methane, so let us grab all the fossil fuels we can!

If you worry about these methane bombs like I did years ago, then your best bet is to do what you can to get us off fossil fuel. There are lots of ways to do that as an individual if you have the means (for example, I’ve installed solar panels on my home, and over the years have done so for three homes now altogether), but there’s one way that exceeds all the others. And it’s really, really easy.


The only thing — literally, the only thing — keeping us from moving off fossil fuels rapidly is people in the fossil fuel industry purposely sowing misinformation about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions … and the politicians who both are enthralled to them and further empower them.

Vote. It can literally save the world.