A scientific study on the results of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill has yielded some surprising results that appear to disprove fears of methane release as a global warming “tipping point” to catastrophic warming.
The theory as currently incorporated by most climate models requires “tipping points” to go from mild anthropogenic warming to catastrophic global warming. The most plausibleand significant of these potential tipping points has always been the release of methane triggered by warmer temperatures:
A piece in the latest issue of Science shows that there’s a considerable amount of methane (CH4) coming from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, where it had been trapped under the permafrost. There’s as much coming out from one small section of the Arctic ocean as from all the rest of the oceans combined. This is officially Not Good.
Here’s why: methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, significantly more powerful than carbon dioxide. There are billions of tons of methane trapped under the permafrost, and if that methane starts leaking quickly, it would have a strong feedback effect—warming the atmosphere and oceans, causing more methane to leak, and on and on. The melting of methane ice (aka “methane hydrates” and “methane clathrates”) is probably the most significant global warming tipping point event out there.
Scary stuff. However, the recent BP oil spill has given scientists the chance of an “impossible experiment” where just such a release of methane has occurred. And the results are now in:
ScienceDaily (Jan. 7, 2011) — Calling the results “extremely surprising,” researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Texas A&M University report that methane gas concentrations in the Gulf of Mexico have returned to near normal levels only months after a massive release occurred following the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.
Kessler added: “Based on our measurements from earlier in the summer and previous other measurements of methane respiration rates around the world, it appeared that (Deepwater Horizon) methane would be present in the Gulf for years to come. Instead, the methane respiration rates increased to levels higher than have ever been recorded, ultimately consuming it and prohibiting its release to the atmosphere.”
Who would have thought it? Not all the myriad teams of climate scientists, obviously, with their billions in research grants, their supercomputers and climate models. But then, a research paper that ends something along the lines of “we conclude that there is no danger, and therefore no need for further study” is not likely to lead to a grant renewal is it?
So what are the implications for this most dangerous of tipping points? The researchers say that their empirical findings (note empirical – as opposed to models on a computer) prove that similar methane releases are not a cause for concern so far as global warming is concerned:
Kessler noted: “We were glad to have the opportunity to lend our expertise to study this oil spill. But also we tried to make a little good come from this disaster and use it to learn something about how the planet functions naturally. The seafloor stores large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which has been suspected to be released naturally, modulating global climate. What the Deepwater Horizon incident has taught us is that releases of methane with similar characteristics will not have the capacity to influence climate.”
And so another terrifying tipping point bites the dust. Expect to read all about this in the newspapers and to hear about it on TV. Or not. Maybe just here at Hauntingthelibrary.