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Old 04-08-2010, 09:26 PM   #1
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Mass Extinction Time

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ne of the greatest concerns and large unknowns in climate science has been the potential impact of methane trapped and frozen in the polar regions of the planet, particularly in the Arctic permafrost. If climate change causes the methane to be released, the gas could start a positive feedback reaction that could trigger abrupt climate warming.

Until now no evidence of such a mechcanism has been seen, but an international research team led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov. say this change is under way—in a little-studied area under the sea, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, west of the Bering Strait.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf, a methane-rich area that encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of seafloor, was long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in the methane, but Shakhova and Semiletov team states that it is in fact perforated and starting to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

"The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans," said Shakhova, a researcher at UAF's International Arctic Research Center. "Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap."

Methane is more than 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. It is released from previously frozen soils in two ways. When the organic material (which contains carbon) stored in permafrost thaws, it begins to decompose and, under anaerobic conditions, gradually releases methane. Methane can also be stored in the seabed as methane gas or methane hydrates and then released as subsea permafrost thaws. These releases can be larger and more abrupt than those that result from decomposition.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is more than three times as large as the nearby Siberian wetlands, which have been considered the primary Northern Hemisphere source of atmospheric methane. Shakhova's research results show that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is already a significant methane source, releasing 7 teragrams of methane yearly, which is as much as is emitted from the rest of the ocean. A teragram is equal to about 1.1 million tons.

"Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of destabilization already," she said. "If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions may not be teragrams, it would be significantly larger."

Shakhova notes that Earth's geological record indicates 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. Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years, she said. Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a relative frontier in methane studies. The shelf is shallow, 50 meters or less in depth, which means it has been alternately submerged or terrestrial, depending on sea levels throughout Earth's history. During Earth's coldest periods, it is a frozen arctic coastal plain, and does not release methane. As Earth warms and sea level rises, it is inundated with seawater, which is 12-15 degrees warmer than the average air temperature.

"It was thought that seawater kept the East Siberian Arctic Shelf permafrost frozen," Shakhova said. "Nobody considered this huge area."

"This study is a testament to sustained, careful observations and to international cooperation in research," said Henrietta Edmonds of the National Science Foundation, which partially funded the study. "The Arctic is a difficult place to get to and to work in, but it is important that we do so in order to understand its role in global climate and its response and contribution to ongoing environmental change. It is important to understand the size of the reservoir—the amount of trapped methane that potentially could be released—as well as the processes that have kept it "trapped" and those that control the release. Work like this helps us to understand and document these processes."

Earlier studies in Siberia focused on methane escaping from thawing terrestrial permafrost. Semiletov's work during the 1990s showed, among other things, that the amount of methane being emitted from terrestrial sources decreased at higher latitudes. But those studies stopped at the coast. Starting in the fall of 2003, Shakhova, Semiletov and the rest of their team took the studies offshore. From 2003 through 2008, they took annual research cruises throughout the shelf and sampled seawater at various depths and the air 10 meters above the ocean. In September 2006, they flew a helicopter over the same area, taking air samples at up to 2,000 meters in the atmosphere. In April 2007, they conducted a winter expedition on the sea ice.

They found that more than 80% of the deep water and more than 50% of surface water had methane levels more than eight times that of normal seawater. In some areas, the saturation levels reached more than 250 times that of background levels in the summer and 1,400 times higher in the winter. They found corresponding results in the air directly above the ocean surface. Methane levels were elevated overall and the seascape was dotted with more than 100 hotspots. This, combined with winter expedition results that found methane gas trapped under and in the sea ice, showed the team that the methane was not only being dissolved in the water, it was bubbling out into the atmosphere.

These findings were further confirmed when Shakhova and her colleagues sampled methane levels at higher elevations. Methane levels throughout the Arctic are usually 8 to 10 percent higher than the global baseline. When they flew over the shelf, they found methane at levels another 5 to 10 percent higher than the already elevated Arctic levels.

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf, in addition to holding large stores of frozen methane, is more of a concern because it is so shallow. In deep water, methane gas oxidizes into carbon dioxide before it reaches the surface. In the shallows of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, methane simply doesn't have enough time to oxidize, which means more of it escapes into the atmosphere. That, combined with the sheer amount of methane in the region, could add a previously uncalculated variable to climate models.

"The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times," Shakhova said. "The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict."
Frozen Arctic methane shows signs outgassing - Physics Today News Picks
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Old 04-08-2010, 11:19 PM   #2
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Good title. I assumed BVS had finally snapped and dreamt up a new way to fix FYM.
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Old 04-08-2010, 11:31 PM   #3
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Oh, we're doomed, we're doomed.
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Old 04-09-2010, 08:41 AM   #4
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I think it probably takes large catastrophes to get people to wake up out of their stupor. The Black Death took a large toll on Catholicism's grip on Europe, culminating in the Protestant Reformation, and it will probably take a similarly large loss of life to get people to take environmentalism seriously--both to get the Right to take off their tinfoil hats and for the Left to consider more immediate, but less ideologically ideal measures like nuclear power and, relatedly, hydrogen fuel. That seems to be human nature.

Until then, let the feelgood dance continue while nearly every car and truck on the road still uses fossil fuels and will continue to do so indefinitely.
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Old 04-09-2010, 09:31 AM   #5
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I'm not sure the Black Death made much difference to Catholicism (the disgraceful Avignon/Rome soap opera did a lot more); what it did do was take a huge toll on feudalism's grip on Europe. I suppose the two were not unrelated, but still. The real Reformation was a long time coming.

Anyhow, the stupor is surely institutional as much as moral. Large systems like ours just don't overhaul in a hurry. Malice not necessary (even if, in places, present).
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Old 04-09-2010, 01:03 PM   #6
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There really is no shortage of "indications" that our time as we know it may be very limited.

Anyone doing anything interesting to make it count? Do you have a list of things to do before you die? Any of them checked off?

TGIF.
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Old 04-09-2010, 07:33 PM   #7
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I would not be surprised at all if this planet faced another great extinction again, of course these extinctions do not wipe the planet clean

mankind would survive, perhaps just 10% of us,

a pruning might not be a bad thing.
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Old 04-09-2010, 07:47 PM   #8
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a pruning might not be a bad thing.
The ObamaCare Death Panels are looking for a few good men like you.
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Old 04-10-2010, 03:12 PM   #9
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This one scares me more than other environmental challenges.

People try to alleviate fears by talking about Earth's (and the Sun's) "natural cycles." Well, extinctions are part of natural cycles.
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Old 04-10-2010, 04:20 PM   #10
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Seriously, it is our (humans) only chance to survive.

I good 80-90% reduction. We won't live to see it.
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Old 04-10-2010, 05:17 PM   #11
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"The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times," Shakhova said. "The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict."
These are vague, unscientific statements.
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Old 04-12-2010, 05:01 PM   #12
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When does the Mayan calendar end?
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Old 04-12-2010, 05:27 PM   #13
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checks facebook friends

I can't find any Mayans to ask
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