This week, scientists made a disturbing discovery in the Arctic Ocean: They saw "vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor," as the Stockholm University put it in a release disclosing the observations. The plume of methane—a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat more powerfully than carbon dioxide, the chief driver of climate change—was unsettling to the scientists.
But it was even more unnerving to Dr. Jason Box, a widely published climatologist who had been following the expedition. As I was digging into the new development, I stumbled upon his tweet, which, coming from a scientist, was downright chilling:
If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we're f'd.
— Jason Box (@climate_ice) July 29, 2014
Box, who is currently a professor of glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, has been studying the Arctic for decades. His accolade-packed Wikipedia page notes that he's made some 20 expeditions to the Arctic since 1994, and served as the lead author on the Greenland section of NOAA's State of the Climate report from 2008-2012. He also runs the Dark Snow project and writes about the latest findings in the field at his blog, Meltfactor.
In other words, Box knows the Arctic, and he knows climate change—and the methane plumes had him blitzed enough to bring out the F bombs.
Now, the scientists in the Arctic didn't fully understand why the plumes were occurring. But they speculated that a warmer "tongue" of ocean current was destabilizing methane hydrates on the Arctic slope.
I called the scientist at his office in Copenhagen, and he talked frankly and emphatically about the new threat, and about the specter of climate change in general. He also swore like a sailor, which I've often wondered how climatologists refrain from doing, given the urgency of the problem—it's certainly an entirely accurate way to communicate the climate plight.
First of all, I asked Box if he stood by that tweet. He did. He'd revise it a bit, to include surface carbon—methane locked in the permafrost that's also beginning to leak out—because if we loose enough of either, we're in trouble.
"Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we're fucked," he told me. What alarmed him was that "the methane bubbles were reaching the surface. That was something new in my survey of methane bubbles," he said.
The scientists' video of methane bubbles in the Arctic Ocean.
"The conventional thought is that the bubbles would be dissolved before they reached the surface and that microorganisms would consume that methane, and that's normal," Box went on. But if the plumes are making it to the surface, that's a brand new source of heat-trapping gases that we need to worry about.
The scientists on the expedition confirm that's what we're seeing, too:
"We are 'sniffing' methane," Ulf Hedman, the science coordinator of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, wrote in a post highlighted by Climate Change SOS. "We see the bubbles on video from the camera mounted on the CTD or the Multicorer. All analysis tells the signs. We are in a Mega flare. We see it in the water column, we read it above the surface, and we follow it up high into the sky with radars and lasers. We see it mixed in the air and carried away with the winds. Methane in the air."
"Methane is more than 20 times more potent than CO2 in trapping infrared as part of the natural greenhouse effect," Box said. "Methane getting to the surface—that's potent stuff."
It's especially worrying because the Arctic is warming faster than nearly anywhere else on Earth. Now, along with melting sea ice and thawing permafrost, we have to add to our list of 'feedback loop' concerns that warming Arctic oceans may be releasing fonts of methane. That is, the warmer the ocean gets, the more methane gets spewed out of those stores on the continental shelf, and the warmer the ocean gets, ad infinitum.
I may escape a lot of this, but my daughter might not. She's 3 years old.
Methane emissions from the ocean floor seen on the screen as large clouds. Photo: Ulf Hedman
"The Arctic is our most immediate carbon concern," Box continued. There is an immense amount of carbon stored there. "It's a giant number. But we should think in terms of, even if a small amount of that carbon comes out, that's a problem."
Box, who hails from Colorado, relocated to Denmark in part to escape the impending impacts of climate change. "Droughts are going to be a problem for the interior states," he said. "I'm a bit of climate refugee." Because the Arctic methane plumes, of course, are just another worrying source of a global phenomenon that is rapidly approaching the brink of irreversibility.
"We're on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it," he said. "We're fucked at a certain point, right? It just becomes unmanageable. The climate dragon is being poked, and eventually the dragon becomes pissed off enough to trash the place."
It was refreshing to hear a climatologist pull no punches, while still eloquently and accurately summarizing the science—even though an increasing number are becoming proactive, like the paleoclimatologist Dr. Michael Mann, and top climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, climate scientists are still learning how to engage the public in a manner that's forceful and compelling. Like Dr. Hansen, Box has a deeply personal reason to sound the alarm.
"I may escape a lot of this," he said, "but my daughter might not. She's 3 years old." Climate change may not destabilize the globe in our lifetime, or even his daughter's—but the fact that feedback loops like methane release could rapidly accelerate the warming means that there's a chance rapid climate transformation—and the social and economic catastrophes that would likely accompany it—could strike sooner.
"If you stand to lose everything, then even a low probability event is high-risk. That's why people fund armies—just in case they get invaded. We need to invest in decarbonizing our energy system." He paused, then added:
"We've got to keep this fucking carbon in the ground."