The blog of Xeno, a slightly mad scientist
Red alert: We’ve awakened a beast that may consume the planet. Global warming has started a chain reaction and is now causing huge releases of frozen methane. Methane is a green house gas itself which will cause further warming. Our planet may be converted into a fiery hell world thanks to our denial and ignorance. (Even if the release is part of a natural cycle human emissions since the industrial age have sped this along. )
Image: Ice and methane bubbles dance across the surface of the East Siberian Sea.
Arctic seabeds are belching massive quantities of methane, according to a new study that says ocean permafrost is a huge and largely overlooked source of the powerful greenhouse gas, which has been linked to global warming.
Previous research had found methane bubbling out of melting permafrost—frozen soil—in Arctic wetlands and lakes.
But the permafrost lining the deep, cold seas was thought to be staying frozen solid, holding in untold amounts of trapped methane.
“It’s not the case anymore,” said study leader Natalia Shakhova, a biogeochemist at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. “The permafrost is actually failing in its ability to preserve this leakage.”
In fact, Shakhova and colleagues estimate that roughly eight million tons of methane are leaking into the atmosphere each year from the East Siberia Sea (map), fueling concerns of accelerated global warming. – nationalgeographic
… Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years, said Shakhova.
Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher, and scientists are concerned because the undersea permafrost “has been showing signs of destabilization already,” she added.
“If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions… would be significantly larger.”
Geological records indicate that atmospheric methane concentrations have varied between about .3 to .4 parts per million during cold periods to .6 to .7 parts per million during warm periods. – commondreams
Extinction by methane may have happened before.
What caused the worst mass extinction in Earth’s history 251 million years ago? An asteroid or comet colliding with Earth? A greenhouse effect? Volcanic eruptions in Siberia? Or an entirely different culprit? A Northwestern University chemical engineer believes the culprit may be an enormous explosion of methane (natural gas) erupting from the ocean depths.
In an article published in the September issue of Geology, Gregory Ryskin, associate professor of chemical engineering, suggests that huge combustible clouds produced by methane gas trapped in stagnant bodies of water and suddenly released could have killed off the majority of marine life and land animals and plants at the end of the Permian era — long before dinosaurs lived and died.
The mechanism also might explain other extinctions and climate perturbations (ice ages) and even the Biblical flood, as well as be the cause of future catastrophes.
Ryskin calculated that some 10,000 gigatons of dissolved methane could have accumulated in water near the ocean floor under high pressure. If released quickly, perhaps triggered by an earthquake, the resulting cloud of methane would have an explosive force about 10,000 times greater than the world’s entire stockpile of nuclear weapons. The huge conflagrations plus flooding and overturned oceans would cause the extinctions. (Approximately 95 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species were lost.) – sciencedaily
How much time do we have before this methane release causes mass extinctions by displacing atmospheric oxygen?
This is a good time to read a bit more about methane:
What is Methane?
Methane is a fuel created biologically by decaying biological material. It is found in the ocean on the seafloor in a frozen form intermingled with water. This is called methane hydrate, a dormant form of methane that is of a condensed volume. When the methane hydrate melts, it reacts with oxygen and increases its volume over 150 times in size, and the gas is more powerful than the fossil fuels we use today. But more than 350 miles under the sea, the methane hydrate is relatively harmless. The volume that can be found is the scary part, which is over eighty-thousand times natural gas reserves, at two-hundred-thousand-trillion cubic feet. – associatedcontent
How toxic is methane?
By itself, methane is not toxic. It is extremely flammable and will cause an explosion; it will also kill you by asphyxiation if it leaks into an enclosed space and deprives you of oxygen. But methane only becomes poisonous when it forms part of another gas and is subject to certain circumstances. The bad news is that this happens quite often.
How Are People Exposed to Methane Gas?
Exposure to pure methane is by breathing, drinking, eating and touching, and many of us will have experienced all four.
We may have breathed the gas when it has entered a building or home by issuing from a crack in the foundation or via a sewer trap. Or we may have unwittingly inhaled methane when we passed close by a septic tank, sewer, manhole or farm waste pit.
It is possible but doubtful that you have drunk a glass of water contaminated with methane. Methane created naturally underground can certainly make its way through the soil and into a water reservoir or lake, but even if this happens, the gas tends to evaporate quickly. Similarly, a young child may eat dirt that has traces of methane. But the levels of exposure are low and there are no known effects on the body.
As for touching, methane gas has trouble passing through the skin, so you are unlikely to absorb it. But if methane does enter your system, by whatever means, your body will remove it swiftly through your breath, blood and urine. And medical research on the issue shows that even after years of exposure to methane, our reproductive and internal organs remain unaffected.
So after all this, you might feel entitled to breathe a sigh of relief and move on. But I wouldn’t dismiss methane detection so easily if I were you. Methane is not a safe gas and you dare not ignore it. Why else do we place fans under buildings to remove methane emissions that we have discovered are seeping from the ground? The reason is not just the flammability of the gas but its properties as an asphyxiant: methane displaces oxygen, and in an area without ventilation will cause suffocation.
Identifying Methane Exposure by Symptoms
Is it possible, then, for us to identify methane gas before we succumb? Perhaps. Impending suffocation may give rise to symptoms such as headaches and dizziness as the amount of oxygen in our bodies depletes. This was a problem among some of the students at the New London School before the methane ignited and caused terrible destruction and death (see Historical Events Where Methane Gas Has Killed). But it is just as likely that we will feel nothing until our brain registers a deficiency of oxygen and causes us to gasp for air. By then, however, it is usually too late for us to do anything other than collapse.// Carbon Monoxide is a Byproduct of Methane
This problem of ventilation is critical when natural gas (which is 97% methane) is burned in our homes, offices and businesses. When natural gas is burning in our boilers, heating radiators and water, and for some reason has an insufficient air supply, carbon monoxide is produced.
Carbon monoxide is colorless, non-irritating, odorless, tasteless and deadly. At 200 ppm (parts per million), you develop a frontal headache after just one to two hours of exposure. At 1600ppm (just 0.16%), you are dizzy, have a headache and feel nauseous within twenty minutes; you are dead in under two hours. At 12800ppm, you are lifeless in less than three minutes.
40,000 people each year in the United States require medical attention after inhaling carbon monoxide fumes, and many of them suffer permanent damage to their heart muscles. 500 people a year die as a direct result of carbon monoxide exposure.
Confusion About Symptoms
The symptoms are easily confused with other conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, flu, and migraines. Other more advanced symptoms you may experience include confusion, convulsions and unconsciousness. At the clinical level, you may have tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) and hypertension (high blood pressure).
Carbon monoxide also affects the central nervous system, causing hallucinations and a heightened emotional state. This can give rise to sightings of “ghosts” and apparent supernatural occurrences.
The gas behind all this is methane, which in the form of natural gas is piped into some 67 million homes across America. We shouldn’t be scared of it – but we should certainly be wary.
How can we survive? How can we save the planet? Could we extract the methane from the atmosphere?
Methane is present in the atmosphere, at roughly 1.7 parts per million (wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth’s_atmosphere#Composition)). It is in principle possible to extract it in large quantities by the same mechanism that we get nitrogen, argon, and other noble gases – by liquefying large volumes of air, and seperating the components by boiling point (fractional distillation). However, this involves liquefying one million litres of air for each 1.7 litres of CH4 – so unfortunately you’d have to put in far more energy to extract it then you’d get back by burning it.
Someone quickly needs to make a system that can liquefy a million liters of air using the power from less than 1.7 litres of methane, then we need to mass produce these devices and deploy them everywhere. The system would have to dispose of the CO2 produced. This would save the earth and fix our energy shortage.
Who knows how much energy it currently takes to liquefy a million liters of air and extract methane? Other ideas?