Arctic methane scare – cancelled

polarbearpartyGlobal warming alarmists have long held that as the globe warms it will melt the permafrost in the Arctic and cause release of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane. New research from Princeton University, however, claims that methane-hungry bacteria in the soil will absorb methane and that ability will increase with rising temperature.

A Princeton press release reports on a new paper published in The ISME Journal: “An active atmospheric methane sink in high Arctic mineral cryosols.” (Paper is pay-walled)

According to Princeton:

“The researchers found that Arctic soils containing low carbon content — which make up 87 percent of the soil in permafrost regions globally — not only remove methane from the atmosphere, but also become more efficient as temperatures increase. During a three-year period, a carbon-poor site on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada’s Arctic region consistently took up more methane as the ground temperature rose from 0 to 18 degrees Celsius (32 to 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The researchers project that should Arctic temperatures rise by 5 to 15 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years, the methane-absorbing capacity of “carbon-poor” soil could increase by five to 30 times.”

“The researchers found that this ability stems from an as-yet unknown species of bacteria in carbon-poor Arctic soil that consume methane in the atmosphere. The bacteria are related to a bacterial group known as Upland Soil Cluster Alpha, the dominant methane-consuming bacteria in carbon-poor Arctic soil. The bacteria the researchers studied remove the carbon from methane to produce methanol, a simple alcohol the bacteria process immediately. The carbon is used for growth or respiration, meaning that it either remains in bacterial cells or is released as carbon dioxide.”

About two years ago, there was another Arctic methane scare that dealt with methane hydrates which occur in marine sediments and crop out on the ocean floor where the pressure is sufficiently high and the temperature is sufficiently low. Methane has been percolating from marine sediments for hundreds of years, at least, and has not suddenly appeared due to global warming.

Geophysicist Judith Curry notes on her blog: “Most scientists who have specific knowledge in the area say a rapid release of methane due to warming is highly unlikely…even if the ocean warms, most of the methane released by thawing permafrost could stay in the seabed or dissolve in seawater.” For more on this aspect, see: “The Great Arctic Methane Scare.”

A major tectonic event, however, could possibly release large quantities of methane from methane hydrates as has been postulated for the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago. (See: Geologic History: PETM when it really got hot )

See also:

Arctic Ocean predicted to be ice free by 2013 – oops

Antarctic sea ice sets new high record

Of Polar Bears and Penguins

The walrus and the warmist hype


New GMO rice eliminates methane emissions and increases nutrition

Researchers sponsored by the Department of Energy found that introducing a single gene from barley into common rice produced a plant that can better feed its grains, stems and leaves while starving off methane-producing microbes in the soil. The new rice is called “SUSIBA2″ rice.

GMO rice

About half the world’s population depends on rice as a staple food. However, the rice paddies used to grow rice are responsible for about 17 percent of global methane emissions, about 100 million tons per year. Methane is a greenhouse gas stronger than carbon dioxide but its concentration in the atmosphere is much lower – about 0.0002% versus 0.04% for CO2.

The GMO modified rice produces more grains and more starch for a richer food supply. There will be no methane emissions from the rice paddies during the growth period.

According to a press release, the results represent the culmination of more than a decade of work in three countries.

The plant process is described as follows:

During photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is absorbed and converts to sugars to feed or be stored in various parts of the plant. Researchers have long sought to better understand and control this process to coax out desired characteristics of the plant. Funneling more carbon to the seeds in rice results in a plumper, starchier grain. Similarly, carbon and resulting sugars channeled to stems and leaves increases their mass and creates more plant biomass, a bioenergy feedstock.

In early work in Sweden, researchers investigated how distribution of sugars in plants could be controlled by a special protein called a transcription factor, which binds to certain genes and turns them on or off.

By controlling where the transcription factor is produced, we can then dictate where in a plant the carbon – and resulting sugars – accumulate.

To narrow down the mass of gene contenders, the team started with grains of barley that were high in starch, then identified genes within that were highly active. The activity of each gene then was analyzed in an attempt to find the specific transcription factor responsible for regulating the conversion of sugar to starch in the above-ground portions of the plant, primarily the grains.

See the press release from EurekaAlert! here and the abstract of the paper in Nature here.

It will be interesting to see how GMO-phobes and climate alarmists react to this news.

See also:

Genetically Modified Foods, nothing to fear

The great Arctic methane scare, again

A commentary posted last month in Nature: “Vast costs of Arctic change,” claims “A 50-gigatonne (Gt) reservoir of methane, stored in the form of hydrates, exists on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. It is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly.” The authors also claim such an event would cost us $60 trillion.  Here, I will address only the probability of a rapid release due to gradual warming.

This scare is not new.  Here is a headline from a 2007 methane scare article in The Canadian: “Over 4.5 Billion people could die from Global Warming-related causes by 2012.”

Methane hydrates occur in marine sediments and crop out on the ocean floor where the pressure is sufficiently high and the temperature is sufficiently low. (See Methane hydrates could fuel the world)

Methane  has been percolating from marine sediments for hundreds of years, at least, and has not suddenly appeared due to global warming.  Methane, as a greenhouse gas, is much stronger than carbon dioxide, but weaker than water vapor.

As geophysicist Judith Curry notes on her blog:

Most scientists who have specific knowledge in the area say a rapid release of methane due to warming is highly unlikely, even NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, a proponent of AGW and proprietor of RealClimate thinks the chances are very low.

Some other comments from Curry’s post:

“Permafrost hundreds of meters thick simply doesn’t warm or thaw much in ten years on account of its thermal inertia.”

“It’s not a given all the methane will end up in the atmosphere. Some could be oxidized [broken down] in the water by bacteria, and some could remain in the sediments on the sea floor.”

“…even if the ocean warms, most of the methane released by thawing permafrost could stay in the seabed or dissolve in seawater.”

An earlier paper in Nature, by  Carolyn D. Ruppel, “Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change” gives a good look at methane hydrate conditions.

“Catastrophic, widespread dissociation of methane gas hydrates will not be triggered by continued climate warming at contemporary rates (0.2ºC per decade; IPCC 2007) over time scales of a few hundred years. Most of Earth’s gas hydrates occur at low saturations and in sediments at such great depths below the sea floor or onshore permafrost that they will barely be affected by warming over even 1000 yr. Even when CH4 is liberated from gas hydrates, oxidative and physical processes may greatly reduce the amount that reaches the atmosphere as CH4.”

“Even when gas hydrate dissociates, several factors mitigate the impact of the liberated CH4 on the sediment-ocean-atmosphere system. In marine sediments, the released CH4 may dissolve in local pore waters, remain trapped as gas, or rise toward the sea floor as bubbles. Up to 90% or more of the CH4 that reaches the sulfate reduction zone (SRZ) in the near-sea floor sediments may be consumed by anaerobic CH4 oxidation. At the highest flux sites (seeps), the SRZ may vanish, allowing CH4 to be injected directly into the water column or, in some cases, partially consumed by aerobic microbes.

Methane emitted at the sea floor only rarely survives the trip through the water column to reach the atmosphere. At sea floor depths greater than ~100 m, O2 and N2 dissolved in ocean water almost completely replace CH4 in rising bubbles. Within the water column, oxidation by aerobic microbes is an important sink for dissolved CH4 over some depth ranges and at some locations. These oxidizing microbial communities are remarkably responsive to environmental changes, including variations in CH4 concentrations. For example, rapid deepwater injection of large volumes of CH4 led to dramatically increased oxidation in the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2010.”

Warming is unlikely to produce a sudden great release of methane.  A tectonic event, however, could possibly release large quantities of methane as has been postulated for the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago. (See: Geologic History: PETM when it really got hot)

The graphic below, from Ruppel, shows the “habitat” for methane hydrates:


Flatulent Fauna Fables and climate

A story making the rounds is creating headlines such as the one in the ever credulous Arizona Daily Star: “Flatulent dinosaurs helped warm Earth, study says.” British researchers posit that the flatulence of herbivorous dinosaurs produced so much methane that it warmed the climate. The paper, published in Current Biology is summarized by the authors as follows:

Mesozoic sauropods, like many modern herbivores, are likely to have hosted microbial methanogenic symbionts for the fermentative digestion of their plant food. Today methane from livestock is a significant component of the global methane budget. Sauropod methane emission would probably also have been considerable. Here, we use a simple quantitative approach to estimate the magnitude of such methane production and show that the production of the greenhouse gas methane by sauropods could have been an important factor in warm Mesozoic climates.

If you read the story (full text here) you will find that the contention depends on many assumptions and rather extravagant extrapolation. The gassiest dinosaurs were the Sauropods which became abundant during the Jurassic Period about 150 million years ago. Global temperatures are estimated to have been 18 F warmer than today, but that warmth began in the preceding Triassic Period about 250 million years ago. There seems to be a timing problem. Also, the researchers estimate that the amount of methane produced by dinosaurs was similar to the amount produced today by livestock farming and industry, so why aren’t we warmer?

At the end of the paper, the researchers note as an attempted justification for their speculation:

 “Although dinosaurs are unique in the large body sizes they achieved, there may have been other occasions in the past where animal-produced methane contributed substantially to global environmental gas composition: for example, it has been speculated that the extinction of megafauna coincident with human colonization of the Americas may be related to a reduction of atmospheric methane levels.”

That references a 2010 paper in which the researchers estimated the amount of methane produced by mammoths and other large herbivores. They speculate that the arrival of humans in North America and the subsequent disappearance of these animals reduced methane emissions and led to an abrupt cooling period, the Younger Dryas, about 12,800 years ago.

At the end of the Younger Dryas, the global temperatures and atmospheric methane both rose rapidly. So where did the methane come from since those flatulent mammoths were no more? The mammoth fart theory fails to explain previous similar abrupt cooling and warming in the Older Dryas period and the Oldest Dryas period, nor a subsequent similar event about 8,200 years ago.

Both of these papers present interesting stories, but they both fail upon close inspection. Still, science is speculative and the stories make headlines and get the authors published.

See also(links updated):

Arizona Geological History Chapter 5: Jurassic Time

Ice Ages and Glacial Epochs

Research Review 3 Climate cycles and a Mammoth Mystery

Geologic History: PETM when it really got hot

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a temperature spike that happened about 55 million years ago.  The preceding Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods where hot and steamy with average global temperatures estimated to be at least 10°C (18°F) warmer than now. Atmospheric carbon dioxide was estimated to be at least three times higher than now.  Life was abundant and flourishing.  The Cretaceous has been described as both a “hot house” and as a “garden of Eden.”  There was no ice at the poles.

The PETM temperature spike caused global temperatures to get even warmer.  Drill core data from deep-sea sediments in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans suggested a rapid rise (geologically rapid, i.e., 10,000 years) of 5°C to 9°C (9-16°F) higher than the existing temperature prior to the event, that is, to as much as 34°F warmer than now.  Global temperature stayed at this elevated level for about 100,000 years, then rapidly cooled back to the prevailing normal temperature and then cooled even more.  Atmospheric carbon dioxide is estimated to have risen from the prevailing 1,000 ppm to about 1,700 ppm, more than four times higher than today.

The cause of the temperature spike is controversial.  Theories include volcanic eruption and massive forest fires that could have put large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, changes in ocean circulation, and evolution of methane into the atmosphere.  Recent research shows that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was insufficient to cause all of the temperature rise (Zeebe et al.), and that warming began before the rise of carbon dioxide (Secord et al.).

The current favored hypothesis is that methane (CH4) was the primary cause of temperature rise.  Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and its evolution into the atmosphere could have initiated warming.  Carbon dioxide is formed by reaction of methane with oxygen. Under warming conditions carbon dioxide also exsolves from the ocean. Evidence suggests that warming happened in several pulses.  However, once all the methane was destroyed by reaction with oxygen, the planet cooled in spite of there being copious carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  This shows that the weak warming effect of carbon dioxide is easily overcome by other natural forces.

Where did the methane come from? Let me set the scene. At the time of PETM, the continents were not in their present location.  The North Atlantic was just beginning to open to the Arctic Ocean; this could have changed the ocean circulation and hence the sea temperature. Volcanism and other tectonic disturbances were very active as the Atlantic opened.

There are two potential sources for methane.  One is methane hydrates sequestered in ocean sediments.  Methane hydrates are ice-like compounds of water and methane formed under cold deep sea temperatures and pressure.  Either a change in temperature or a change in pressure would release the methane.

The second, a perhaps more likely source, involves volcanism and organic methane sequestered in deep sea sediments, similar to the oil shale deposits now being explored.  As noted in Geotimes (October 2006), research in the Norwegian sea found thousands of hydrothermal vent complexes that date to the Paleocene-Eocene boundary.  As methane-bearing sediments were subducted deeper and deeper, they came into contact with hot magma from the mantle.  This can cause explosive events and rapid release of methane.  This scenario is supported by the high ratio of Carbon-12 to Carbon-13, indicating microbic generated methane, found at the PETM event.

With rapid warming came both death and opportunity.  Mammal diversity and range exploded as did that for terrestrial plants. The North American horse first appeared at this time.  At the same time, however, deep-dwelling ocean fauna suffered a rapid extinction.

Although the global temperature dropped rapidly after PETM once the methane was used up, another warming spike happened about 40 million years ago in mid-Eocene time, possibly due to a similar cause.  But afterwards another sharp cooling trend began and by 34 million years ago ice began to form in Antarctica.  Global temperatures have been dropping ever since.   We are presently in an interglacial period of an ice age that began about three million years ago.


Ross Secord, Philip D. Gingerich, Kyger C. Lohmann & Kenneth G. MacLeod, 2010, Continental warming preceding the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum, Nature 467,955–958.

Richard E. Zeebe, James C. Zachos & Gerald R. Dickens, 2009, Carbon dioxide forcing alone insufficient to explain Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum warming, Nature Geoscience 2, 576 – 580 (2009)


Hydraulic fracturing, natural gas, shale oil and environmental concerns

As drilling technology improves, we are able to access new sources of natural gas and oil in shale formations. The U.S. has abundant resources of oil and natural gas in shale deposits. According to the U.S. Geological Survey the U.S. holds more than half of the world’s oil shale resources. The largest known deposits of oil shale are located in a 16,000-square mile area in the Green River formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The USGS’s most recent estimates (April, 2009) show the region may hold more than 1.5 trillion barrels of oil – six times Saudi Arabia’s proven resources, and enough to provide the United States with energy for the next 200 years. For a map of U.S. shale oil and natural gas deposits see here.


But there are environmental concerns. Most of those concerns are about possible contamination of groundwater from the drilling fluids. The Department of Energy has announced “Breakthrough Water Cleaning Technology Could Lessen Environmental Impacts from Shale Production.”

A private company, ABSMaterial, developed its Osorb® technology, which uses swelling silica material to remove impurities from the flow back water and produced water from hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells. Tests show that the silica removes “more than 99 percent of oil and grease, more than 90 percent of dissolved BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes), and significant amounts of production chemicals.” Testing has shown that total petroleum hydrocarbon levels in the water were slashed from 227 milligrams per liter to 0.1 milligrams per liter. The silica material “a hybrid organic-inorganic nano-engineered structure, is a breakthrough in hydrocarbon removal technology that rapidly swells up to eight times its dried volume upon exposure to non-polar liquids. The swelling process is completely reversible—with no loss in swelling behavior even after repeated use—when absorbed species are evaporated by heating the material.”

Still, some media hypes anti-energy propaganda. Typical is the headline from an April 10 story in the Arizona Daily Star which read: “Water wells show contamination near gas-drilling sites.”

The story mentions “potentially dangerous concentrations of methane gas in water from wells near drilling sites in northeastern Pennsylvania…” Methane is non-toxic but can produce a fire hazard if concentrated. The Star story says that researchers from Duke University did not find any trace of chemicals used in the hydro-fracturing process.

Upon further reading we find, “The authors admit they have no baseline data at all, which makes it impossible to characterize the state of those water wells prior to recent development.” So we don’t know if nearby drilling caused “contamination” or if the presence of methane there is a natural phenomenon. The headline does not match the story.

The Arizona Daily Star has so far not mentioned the water cleaning technology. Does the Star practice content bias?

Update from a reader:

The chemist who first discovered Osorb and its unique properties, Dr. Paul Edmiston, grew up in Tucson. He is an a graduate of Salpointe High School, went to college at Pepperdine in California and returned to the U of A for his PhD.  He is now at College of Wooster in Ohio, He and his partner, Steve Spoonamore, are the founders of ABSMaterials.


Arizona Geological History Chapter 7: The Cenozoic Era

Cenozoic Era, Arizona was squeezed, then stretched; steamed and frozen.

The Cenozoic era represents the most recent 65 million years. (See the geologic time chart for the subdivisions.)

Paleomap 50


Construction of the Rocky Mountains, volcanism, and emplacement of our major copper deposits, all of which began in Cretaceous time,  continued in the Cenozoic Era until about 40 million years ago.   During this time, the oceanic crust of the Pacific Ocean was being subducted beneath the westward-moving North American continental plate.  The resulting compression caused southern and western Arizona to be topographically higher than the Colorado Plateau, the opposite of current topography.

The compression produced large thrust faults which led to mountain building. The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado has a structure similar to the diagram below.




By about 20 million years ago, Arizona was covered with thousands of feet of volcanic rocks, locally punctured by calderas.

The photo below (from the Arizona Geological Survey) shows erosional remnants of a volcanic ash-flow in the Chiricahua Mountains. These rocks were expelled from the Turkey Creek caldera 27 million years ago. The spire forms, called “hoodoos,” result from mass wasting by ice and water.



Sometime between 30- and 20 million years ago the north American tectonic plate overrode a spreading center called the East Pacific Rise. This area is similar to the spreading center of the Mid-Atlantic ridge that gradually separated Africa from South American, and Europe from North America. Today, this western spreading center runs up the Gulf of California and separates Baja from mainland Mexico. It is also the driver of the San Andreas fault in California. By over-riding the spreading center, the tectonic regime changed from compression to extension. Arizona began to be pulled apart to form the Basin and Range physiography of today.

Initially, crustal extension was characterized by widespread normal faulting and fault-block rotation. Movement occurred along high-angle normal faults some of which may flatten at depth into low-angle detachment faults. Later extension resulted in high-angle faults which bound our valleys and make some of the valleys as much as 15,000 feet deep to bedrock.


Detachment fault from Arizona Geology

All of this faulting sometimes makes the life of exploration geologists very interesting when hunting for porphyry copper deposits, because some of those deposits were cut and fanned out like a deck of cards. Finding all the pieces takes some geologic detective work.

Perhaps the most famous local case of geological detective work is that of John Guilbert and David Lowell who studied the San Manuel mine north of Tucson. They noticed that the arrangement of mineralization and alteration formed shells around the generating intrusive. But the model they constructed implied that the deposit was lying on its side, and half of it was missing. It was removed by faulting. By applying their model, Lowell and Guilbert found the other half.

South of Tucson, the Mission-Pima mine and the San Xavier mine seem to be slices removed from top of the Twin Buttes deposit by low-angle faulting.. The Sierrita mine, located on the opposite side of a major high-angle fault from Twin Buttes is still intact (we think).

Middle Cenozoic veins host gold, silver, and base-metal deposits. Copper-gold mineralization is associated with the detachment faults. Manganese and uranium deposits occur in the basins resulting from the extension.

Volcanic activity resumed 2- to 3 million years ago with eruption of basalt which produced flows and cinder cones (see map below). The rocks of the San Francisco volcanic field near Flagstaff, the Springerville-Show Low field, the San Bernardino field east of Douglas, and the Pinacate field in Mexico are examples of this episode. The most recent volcanism was at Sunset Crater near Flagstaff. It erupted about 1,000 years ago. The San Francisco field is considered active and the most likely place in Arizona to have another eruption. The map below, from the Arizona Geological Survey shows the extensive Cenozoic volcanism.


The Grand Canyon was formed during the late Cenozoic. The Colorado Plateau initially tilted to the northeast and rivers, including the ancestral Colorado River, flowed in that direction into Utah and Colorado. Beginning about 18 million years ago, crustal stretching formed the Basin and Range province west and south of the plateau. Also around this time, plate tectonic adjustment began to tilt the Plateau toward the southwest. Sometime around 10 million years ago, plate tectonic movement began to open the Gulf of California and a river at its north end began to cut northward. At about the same time, the northeastward flowing rivers of the Colorado Plateau reached the southern escarpment of the plateau and began to flow south forming lakes along what is now the course of the Colorado River. Actual cutting of the Grand Canyon probably began about 5.5 million years ago.

Climate in the early Cenozoic continued to be hot and steamy, about 18̊F warmer than today, even though atmospheric carbon dioxide had been decreasing for 80 million years due to coal formation in the Cretaceous. Around 55 mya, there was a sudden temperature spike that lasted for about 100,000 years. (That’s geologically sudden = 10,000 years.) The spike is known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Data, derived from drill cores brought up from the deep seabed in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, show that the surface temperature of the planet rose by as much as 15̊F over the already warm temperatures. The cause is controversial.

Carbon dioxide levels rose from 1000 ppm to 1700 ppm–more than four times higher than today’s level of 400 ppm, but that rise began after the start of the temperature spike.

Isotopic analysis of carbon suggests that the culprit was methane, which is 65 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. There are two hypotheses as to the source of methane: microbially generated methane buried in sediments along the slopes of the continental shelves; and methane clathrates. Methane clathrates are crystalline structures of methane bound to water. They form at near freezing temperatures under high pressure. They are stable up to 64̊F under high enough pressure. This form of methane exists along our coasts today, frozen in the sediment at low temperatures and high pressures. They are being investigated as a source of energy.

It is speculated that volcanism and tectonic disturbance released pressure that was holding the methane in clathrates or in sediments themselves. This “sudden” release of methane caused the temperature spike. (There is nothing to prevent this from happening again.)

After that temperature spike subsided, temperatures remained warm until about 34 mya when global temperatures began to drop. Antarctica had separated itself from Africa, Australia, and South America which caused the southern circumpolar ocean current to be established which isolated Antarctica from warm tropical waters. Global temperatures continued to drop. About 2.6 mya, continental ice formed at lower latitudes and initiated the glacial epochs and interglacial periods of our current ice age.


Shellito, Cindy, 2006, Catastrophe and Opportunity in an Ancient Hot-House Climate, Geotimes, October 2006.

In Arizona Geological Society Digest 17:

Lucchitta, Ivo, 1989 History of the Grand Canyon and of the Colorado River in Arizona.

Lynch, D.J., 1989, Neogene volcanism in Arizona.

Menges, C. M., 1989, Late Cenozoic Tectonism in Arizona and its impact on regional landscape evolution.

Pearthree, P., House, K., (now with USGS), and Perkins, M., Stratigraphic evidence for the role of lake spillover in the inception of the lower Colorado River in southern Nevada and western Arizona, Geological Society of America Special Paper 439

Scarborough, R., 1989, Cenozoic erosion and sedimentation in Arizona.