Additionally, lying along the Arctic's subsea continental margins and beneath Arctic permafrost are methane hydrates, often described as methane gas surrounded by ice. In March 2010, a report in Science indicated that these cumulatively contain the equivalent of 1,000 to 10,000 gigatons of carbon.
Natalia Shakhova is a research associate professor of the University Alaska Fairbanks, International Arctic Research Center, where she focuses on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). Shakhova believes we should be concerned about her group's findings from the ESAS, specifically, because that area differs significantly from methane emissions happening elsewhere around the world.
The ESAS is the largest shelf in the world, encompassing more than 2 million square kilometers, or 8 percent of the world's continental shelf. Shakhova believes it holds an area-weighted contribution to the global hydrate inventory of "at least 10 to 15 percent."
"These emissions are prone to be non-gradual (massive, abrupt) for a variety of reasons," she told Truthout. "The main reason is that the nature of major processes associated with methane releases from subsea permafrost is non-gradual."
This means that methane releases from decaying frozen hydrates could result in emission rates that "could change in order of magnitude in a matter of minutes," and that there would be nothing "smooth, gradual or controlled" about it; we could be looking at non-linear releases of methane in amounts that are difficult to fathom.
She explained that the transition from the methane being frozen in the permafrost, either on land or in the shallow northern shores of the East Siberian Arctic, "is not gradual. When it comes to phase transition, it appears to be a relatively short, jump-like transformation from one state of the process to another state. The difference between the two states is like the difference between a closed valve and an open valve. This kind of a release is like the unsealing of an over-pressurized pipeline."
These immediate methane releases in the ESAS could be triggered at any moment by seismic or tectonic events, the subsiding of sediments caused by hydrate decay or sediment sliding due to permafrost degradation and thaw. The ESAS is particularly prone to these immediate shifts because it is three times shallower than the mean depth of the continental shelf of the world ocean.
"This means that probability of dissolved methane to escape from the water column to the atmosphere is from three to 10 times greater than anywhere in the world's oceans," Shakhova said. "In the ESAS, methane is predominantly transported as bubbles. Methane bubbles rise to the surface at a speed from 10 to 40 cm s-1; this means that it only takes minutes for methane to reach the water surface and escape to the atmosphere."
Even the relatively staid Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of such a scenario: "The possibility of abrupt climate change and/or abrupt changes in the earth system triggered by climate change, with potentially catastrophic consequences, cannot be ruled out. Positive feedback from warming may cause the release of carbon or methane from the terrestrial biosphere and oceans."
Ira Leifer, an atmospheric and marine scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of several Arctic methane studies, told Truthout that the scientific community has learned that methane emissions from the Arctic are already larger than previously thought, and said, "The warming trend in the Arctic is clear."
The dangers of methane-related warning are staggering, according to Leifer.
"The amount of methane trapped in submerged permafrost is vast, and if even a small fraction reaches the atmosphere on the time scale of a few decades, it would lead to a dramatic increase in warming on a global scale," he warned. "Furthermore, it could lead to a positive feedback where warming oceans release more methane which warms the Arctic more and leads to more methane release. Worse, the warming only slowly percolates to lower latitudes - and therefore it contributes to the enhanced Arctic warming."
Like Shakhova, Leifer also expressed concern about the ESAS.
"The potential is there for hydrate emissions to increase with warming oceans due to increased dissociation," he warned. He also confirmed that his recent studies of methane emissions in the Arctic even found the gas hundreds of miles from the coast. This means that the methane cannot be coming from land sources; Leifer has concluded that his recent studies "confirm a local marine source."
Meaning, the subsea hydrates are already releasing their methane very far from shore.
Paul Beckwith, a climatology and meteorology professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada, is an engineer and physicist who researches abrupt climate change in both the present day and in the paleoclimatology records of the deep past.
"It is my view that our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two," Beckwith told me. "Obviously, such a large change in the climate system will have unprecedented effects on the health and well-being of every plant and animal on our planet."
Beckwith notes that the increasing methane releases in the Arctic and the massive impact they will have on the planetary weather system mean "there will be continuing disruption and fracturing of our weather and climate systems."
He went on to issue a stark warning. "Further acceleration of these processes is very likely to lead to an 'abrupt climate change' system reorganization from a cold, snowy, ice-covered Arctic Ocean to a 'blue Arctic Ocean' regime," he said. "The final state could have a global temperature average being 5 or 6 degrees Celsius warmer and the transition to this state could occur in one to two decades, as has occurred many times in the past as recorded in paleorecords."
The advent of the "blue Arctic Ocean" Beckwith warns us of is only a matter of time, and will most likely happen before 2020, considering that exponential decline in Arctic summer sea ice volume has already been determined by the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System data and models, which have been corroborated with recent CryoSat measurements, as well as modeling by the Naval Graduate School Regional Climate Models.
Beckwith warns that losing the Arctic sea ice will create a state that "will represent a very different planet, with a much higher global average temperature, in which snow and ice in the northern hemisphere becomes very rare or even vanishes year round."
"What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic," Beckwith explained. "The rapidly warming Arctic relative to the rest of the planet (five to eight times global average temperature rise) is decreasing the temperature gradient between the Arctic and the equator."
This decreased gradient is disrupting the jet stream, leading to further warming in the Arctic, forming a runaway feedback loop, which in turn is causing the release of more methane in the Arctic.
"As the methane concentrations increase in the Arctic from the large warming rates there in both the atmosphere and ocean, the jet streams will be greatly disrupted even more than now," Beckwith said. "Physics dictates that this will continue to increase the frequency, severity and duration of extreme weather events like torrential rains leading to widespread flooding in some regions and droughts in other regions. Needless to say, this causes enormous economic losses and poses a severe and grave threat to our global food supply. Thus, the Arctic can be considered the Achilles heel in our climate system."
British scientist John Nissen, chairman of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, suggests that if the summer sea ice loss passes "the point of no return" and "catastrophic Arctic methane feedbacks" kick in, we'll be in an "instant planetary emergency."