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Methane, it’s a gas

If carbon dioxide is trump, then methane is the joker in the greenhouse game. The flammable gas (CH4) is produced in wetlands, landfills and in the guts of cattle and sheep, and it is stored in vast amounts in so-called clathrates, or gas hydrates, in the ocean floor.


The latter stuff has always kindled imagination. In the 1930s, dumbfounded Russian sailors who had lit dynamite for navigational purposes in the Siberian Arctic reported that the air around them started to burn. Had they set on fire methane released from clathrate reservoirs? Perhaps.

Less likely is that methane bubbling up from the ocean floor can makes the water so foamy that ships floating above sink like a rock. File this under Bermuda triangle myths.

But catastrophic methane bursts do seem to be linked with anomalous warming episodes in the Earth’s past, such as the one that occurred at the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum around 55 million years ago. Dissociating clathrates may well have been the culprit then.

What had uncorked the bottle is unclear. But in any case, reports this week of methane emissions from sub-sea permafrost beneath the Siberian shelf, and from the seabed off Svalbard, sound alarming.

Geologists assume there are large methane hydrate reservoirs in both regions. Are they beginning to destabilize? Have we lit a time bomb? Is global warning getting out of control?

Media reports this week imply all this, some more and some less cautiously. It’s a wonderful story of course: Weird things happening in the Arctic, strange tales from the bottom of the ocean, Apocalypse Soon! It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s scary – no wonder journalists love it.

But wait a minute. The methane system discovered off Svalbard has probably been active for thousands of years, it’s only that no-one has ever looked for it.

The methane emissions detected in the Laptev Sea are also not a new phenomenon. Russian scientists have observed methane plumes there since the mid-1990s when they began to regularly visit the remote and inaccessible region. It does seem that there are many more, and possibly more vigorous, emission hotspots than was previously thought. But observations are still few; it’s not too much of a surprise that the harder they look the more they will find. I have tried to put the recent discoveries in context in my news story here.

That’s not to say that rising methane emissions, and thawing permafrost, are no concerns. They are, and their sources and causes need to be studied carefully. Long-overlooked methane emissions from living plants, as were just recently confirmed, are proof enough for how poorly methane cycles are actually understood.

But not only in matters climate change there’s a danger of confusing people by media coverage that alternates between alarmism and appeasement. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times has appositely termed the effect a journalistic whiplash for the public.

Science, although intrinsically a never-ending process, will every so often generate journalistic scoops – and sometimes journalistic kitsch. The methane story is exciting, but inflationary use of ‘dramatic’, ‘alarming’ etc in science stories produces only cheap thrills.

Quirin Schiermeier


  1. Report this comment Klaus J. Seelig said:

    I remember that NG sold to the Citizens for Heating is called Methan-based Natural Gas. Wherever it is drilled, huge amounts are to be vented into the atmosphere before the’leak’ is sealed or burnt (increasing the CO2).

    Is it false to claim anthropogen exploitation of NG as a possible cause, compared to the enteric gases of all mammals,as herbi-, carni- or omnivorics ?

  2. Report this comment Klaus J. Seelig said:

    Methane as an Ozone-Killer?

    And Trace-Gases disturbing the Heat-Dissipation ?

    Did anybody mention as yet the constant usage of “hypergolic” fuel for Military and civil Satellites since 20 years as “asymetric Methyl-Hydrazine” which – when mixed with “Nitrous Tetroxyd” as in Rocket-Motors- directly explodes and burns partly to CO2, but also to soot-rich exhausts flakes in Space (far above the airlines’ Condens-Stripes) so that there is an investigation going on about the origin and possible consequences of that soot-rich Exhaust-Material ?

    Of course in case of automobil car-windowpanes, which are sprayed with metallic dust in nano-thickness, these Filters as IR-light reflecting membranes are wanted.

    The total mass of the natural gases in the entire Spheric Volume of the Mesosphere (at about 1 millionth of atmospheric pressure at sealevel and a free-flight-distance of the local gas-molecules of some cm to dm) may on rough estimation be only several 100 kg up to some


    But the reported Fuel used

    in 20 Years is far more than 1000 tons.

    Soot attracting the metallic dust from Aluminium of the SRB-Fuel of 125 starts is hoped to be not be much more than a nano-filter’s thickness (on the Noctilucent Clouds ??) and will still be able to effectively disturbing the IR-Transmission which is so direly necessary for keeping the Global Heat-Dissipation in bearable margins.

    Heatwaves in China and US due to dark-brown clouds in the Mesosphere will also have causes, if we are allowed to look and know and put puzzle pieces together.

    Who is responsible for cleaning those sooted filters and How long is that planned to go on undetected, unannounced and irreversibly and unchequed ?

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