Time to panic yet?  Too soon to tell...

You know that mysterious crater that suddenly opened up in the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia?   Now an article in Nature blames it on melting permafrost:


A Russian archaeologist named Andrei Plekhanov led an expedition there.  He and his team think it could be caused by melting permafrost due to abnormally hot summers in 2012 and 2013 - about 5°C warmer than usual.  Air in the crater had up to 9.6% methane.  The normal amount is closer to 0.0002%

Some scientists are already worrying about methane released from melting permafrost.   Methane is a potent greenhouse gas: 90 times worse than carbon dioxide by weight, at least for the first 20 years.  (It goes away faster.)   Could we be in for a nasty feedback loop, where a warming climate melts permafrost, releases methane and warms the Earth even more?

The short answer is: probably not very soon.  

There are certainly things that make me nervous.  Back in 2011, a Russian research cruiser found methane bubbling up from the ocean floor:

In late summer, the Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev conducted an extensive survey of about 10,000 square miles of sea off the East Siberian coast. Scientists deployed four highly sensitive instruments, both seismic and acoustic, to monitor the “fountains” or plumes of methane bubbles rising to the sea surface from beneath the seabed.

“In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed,” Dr Semiletov said. “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.”

Others argued that this could have been going on for centuries; nobody had looked very hard!   A group of experts called the Permafrost Carbon Network polled themselves and guessed that up to 2040, they expected the effect of melting permafrost to be roughly 1/8 to 1/4 of the direct effect of burning carbon.  That would be bad but not disastrous... at least not soon. 

One obvious question about this crater is whether it's an unusual event or the start of a trend.  Local reindeer herders have reported a similar but smaller hole nearby.  But most of us, who aren't doing research on permafrost, will just have to wait and see.

Hey, I've got an idea!   In the meantime, how about cutting greenhouse gas emissions?

For more background, see:



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