Methane Burps in Arctic and Climate Change

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  • #1821
    Avatar of Vandana Singh
    Vandana Singh
    Participant

    I’ve been following the rather ominous reports in the last few years of methane bubbling up from the Arctic ocean floor as the ocean warms. New Scientist tells us that large methane belches are likely, and that a large enough burp could set the world back by 60 trillion dollars while moving global warming forward by 35 years. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23923-huge-methane-belch-in-arctic-could-cost-60-trillion.html#.Uff-fNKsiSo. Methane is much better at trapping terrestrial infra-red than CO2, and in large enough concentrations is flammable when it meets oxygen in the atmosphere. There is a LOT of methane on the sea bed, protected by a rapidly melting layer of permafrost.

    My big question is in three parts:
    1) how do we study the arctic floor to see where methane burps are most likley? To what extent is it possible to predict when and where they occur? Could we do an analog of a Google oceans mapping of the seafloor for methane clathrates?
    2) how do we prevent a catastrophic methane burp? Since more methane means more warming, which means more methane, this is a positive feedback loop that could lead to an irreversible tipping point. Scientific American has this interesting article. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=defusing-the-methane-time-bomb. But I think it should be made clear that defusing this ‘time bomb’ is only going to buy us time, not solve global warming. For us to avert catastrophic global warming (i.e. the tipping point of irreversibility) it would take more than technological solutions trapped in the same old sociological paradigms.
    3) Supposing a major methane burp does occur. What can we do to minimize its destructive effects, if anything? Even the CIA has gotten interested in this scenario, given the geopolitical destabilization that is an inevitable consequence of an extreme climate event. I am not a fan of geoengineering except as a last resort, but this might be an area where a carefully thought out geoengineering solution could buy us some time. I would be most interested in an intelligent solution that takes into account the fact that climates are complex systems where small changes in key parameters could result in large-scale changes.

    Since not only our ‘real’ future but all our lovely science-fictional imaginings of possible futures are imperiled by climate change, it would be cool if we could do some collective brainstorming. Ideas? Thoughts?

    #1822
    Avatar of Greg Staskowski
    Greg Staskowski
    Participant

    Well, the logical engineering approach is for us to get there first. Basically create a sea bed based economic vehicle for power generation using all that methane and passively pumping most of it to deep underground reservoirs for future use, rather than let it escape into the atmosphere with potentially destructive results? This is the type of project that I classify as a 100 to 200 year project though. Human habitation on the sea floor and deep sea is one of those things that is sort of an economic last resort right now, but probably becomes more likely if we really manage to upset the land based ecosystem (anything is possible).

    Then there is the concept of “catastrophic global warming” which is a case of a problem that is really too big for limited human understanding and probably needs to be broken down into small and more manageable chunks (this is what we can use engineering solutions for, this is what we can solve by changing to different fuel systems, we can then build dikes around threatened cities to buy more time, etc.).

    What solutions and relevant opportunity topology would you like to discuss?

    -GJS

    #1828
    Avatar of Vandana Singh
    Vandana Singh
    Participant

    Well, I’ve just been in touch with scientists at Los Alamos working on this problem and they have interesting things to say. For one thing, it seems that the methane clathrates and the permafrost/sediment layer are quite unstable, so it would be hard to do a controlled mining of the methane. In other words, it is possible that interfering with the system would cause more methane to belch out. Besides anything that locks us into more dependence on fossil fuels is going to make it increasingly difficult to make the switch to alternate sources of energy.

    According to the person who was kind enough to answer my email, there is some hope that methane-eating bacteria could in part take care of the problem. But this would cause a regional ecosystem collapse due to acidification and depletion of O2, which would be preferable to a global collapse but still, it would wipe out life in huge tracts of ocean and we don’t yet know the consequences of that.

    Unfortunately my understanding is that the ‘small and manageable chunks’ approach does not work for non-reductionist complex systems. One of the most interesting aspects of this problem is that it appears to call for a paradigm shift.

    There may not be a solution to the catastrophic scenario, or a way to prevent it. But since we are being science-fictional here, I’d like to think of possibilities. What crazy ideas can we come up with that go against conventional wisdom?

    Has anyone come across the term “the technology of foolishness?” It was coined by James March, a Stanford University researcher on organizations. Here is a description by him of those who indulge in it:

    “Romantics willingly resort to the technology of foolishness, treating their targets like hypotheses (which will be confirmed or otherwise), their intuition as a legitimate source of inspiration, hypocrisy as a necessary transition, reports and the need for consistency as a potential enemy, experience as just another theory among many. They live and act in a playful manner. A decision is an occasion for learning something about the goal they are pursuing; planning is a way of recounting history and interpreting the past.”

    Examples of crazy, non-intuitive ideas that have nevertheless worked include the civil disobedience movement in India (Satyagraha), and Mohammad Yunus’s microlending scheme.

    As science fiction writers I think we can be playful. Anyone?

    #1846
    Avatar of Geoffrey Landis
    Geoffrey Landis
    Participant

    “the technology of foolishness”

    Wow, what a mish-mash of concepts.

    treating their targets like hypotheses (which will be confirmed or otherwise)

    I’m not sure what the word “target” means, but treating ideas as hypotheses that need to be confirmed: good idea.

    their intuition as a legitimate source of inspiration,

    Yep, good idea.

    hypocrisy as a necessary transition,

    Huh what???? I don’t have any idea what that means.

    reports and the need for consistency as a potential enemy,

    bad, I’d say. The world must necessarily be consistent. On the other hand, as Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of the little mind, of which I’d say, it’s important to be able to change your mind.

    experience as just another theory among many.

    I don’t know what that means. It’s good to learn from experience, but when people go to the “we tried that once and it didn’t work,” that’s bad.

    They live and act in a playful manner.

    Good!

    A decision is an occasion for learning something about the goal they are pursuing;

    Yep.

    planning is a way of recounting history and interpreting the past.

    Yep.

    #1851
    Avatar of Vandana Singh
    Vandana Singh
    Participant

    Hi Geoff,

    I couldn’t find the entire paper on the internet — I don’t know if it explains things any better. I am just as puzzled by some of the statements as you are, although it’s kind of fun to guess what they might mean. The thing about consistency is interesting. A lot of ancient philosophies have contradictory notions that co-exist — perhaps they are simply indicators to a higher truth? Perhaps each statement is true under different circumstances? I had a friend once (a fellow Indian) who was a physicist, who was also very devout religiously. In my callow youth I once challenged him, stating that he wasn’t being consistent, being a physicist AND religious (I was kind of naive) — and he said, “why be consistent?” which totally stumped me. So while I share your preference for reports and consistency, I think some people/ philosophies seem to co-exist quite happily in multiple planes, where a) they believe in objective truth as that which emerges from physics and b) also believe in myths and rituals and so on as a kind of ‘psychological’ truth at a metaphorical level. I am still trying to figure all this out.

    Many of the examples of ‘foolishness’ perhaps make the case more convincingly. Lending tiny amounts of money to the poorest of the poor sounds utterly ridiculous from a banker’s perspective, yet it lifted millions out of poverty. So I guess what I am looking for is a kind of crazy playfulness that (however ludicrous) at worst shakes us out of various intellectual ruts/ minima, and at best might even suggest ideas that would work.

    P.S. We met some years ago at CSFW, nice to ‘meet’ again.

    #1939
    Avatar of Geoffrey Landis
    Geoffrey Landis
    Participant

    Hi, Vandana,
    Indeed, I do remember– you also had a story in the Year’s Best antho that year which I really liked.

    #1970
    Avatar of Vandana Singh
    Vandana Singh
    Participant

    Thanks, Geoff! Let me know when you and Mary are next in the area!

    I am having the most amazing time talking to scientists at ASU and elsewhere about various things, including (but not limited to) methane outgassing. One of the most interesting things I am learning (consistent with my self-study of complexity from the textbook by Steven Strogatz, Non-Linear Dynamics and Chaos) is that geo-engineering as a solution to climate change is a bad idea. Making large-scale interventions in a complex system you don’t understand is not sensible and is more likely than not to have catastrophic effects. A better alternative is to identify aspects and parameters of the system to which it is sensitive as a whole, and tweak or manipulate them in a connected or concerted fashion so as to gently swing the system as a whole away from catastrophe. Because science started historically with the reductionist paradigm, (and while it is incredibly useful, as a particle physicist would attest) it is hard to switch gears and think differently. But it has to be done. We have a lot to learn from (non-traditional) engineers, biogeochemists and ecologists, as I have been doing. And there is a crucial component that is sociological, as an environmental geographer would tell you (and told me).

    Can we have a round of cheers for the incredible generosity of university scholars and scientists in sharing their work, thoughts and time?

    #1975
    Avatar of Gregory Benford
    Gregory Benford
    Participant

    I did a study for DARPA on suppressing Arctic warming in summer–where the major threat of methane exhales lies. Dispersing SO2 droplets (or H2SO4 in presence of H2O in the air, ie clouds) which reflect sunlight can cool the Arctic, stopping retreat of sea ice. The K-10 Extenders we have now can do this at cost ~$200 million/summer, with SO2 raining out in fall. Many details, and simulations done by Caldiera & Wood show this works in climate models.

    If methane exhaling starts to run away in early summer, deploying this could cut it off. The Russians like their corridor free of sea ice across Siberia and Canada, but that could be compromised by agreements to limit the corridor width. All this I worked out for a policy review at the annual DARPA Board review.

    So there is a general fix we can make work now. Political will to do so is another issue.

    #1980
    Avatar of Vandana Singh
    Vandana Singh
    Participant

    Hi Greg! Thanks for the very interesting idea. I’ve heard of dispersion of reflective particles in the atmosphere but had no idea that serious studies had been done on it, and specifically on SO2 droplet dispersion. One thing that concerns me about geoengineering is that its large scale makes it difficult to see how you’d stop or reverse it if things go wrong. I think we need the research, but I agree with Caldiera’s cautious note: “I look at geoengineering as something only to consider if our backs were really up against the wall” quoted here http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2201.

    Agreed on the political will. Political will for any action on climate change will only follow from public pressure, and that is going to be a hard one.

    #1982
    Avatar of Gregory Benford
    Gregory Benford
    Participant

    Vandanta:
    “One thing that concerns me about geoengineering is that its large scale makes it difficult to see how you’d stop or reverse it if things go wrong.”
    Start with spraying at high troposphere levels, so they rain out within days. Then move to strato, with weeks or months residence time. Experiment! Summer Arctic season is 4 months so a full trial can be stopped at any time.

    See http://dge.stanford.edu/labs/caldeiralab/Caldeira_research/Wood_Caldeira.html
    and similar there.
    This has been a very active area for the ~20 years I’ve been in it.

    #1988
    Avatar of Vandana Singh
    Vandana Singh
    Participant

    Thanks, Greg. I will read it and think about it and likely have questions later on.

    #1991
    Avatar of Steve Shervais
    Steve Shervais
    Participant

    Hi. This is my first post — thanks, Vandana, for inviting me. My background is Systems Science (Ph.D., Portland State), and half a century of reading SF.

    So, let me frame my thoughts by saying that I see three questions that need answering.
    1. How big is the threat?
    2. How likely is it?
    3. What can we do?

    The Nature paper really concentrated on (1.), the size of the threat. The author’s model is a climate model, not a clathrates/seabed model, and the modelers appear to have simply run their standard model with a major injection of methane. There’s nothing wrong with an exogenous input like that, but you then have to justify it.

    The likelihood issue (2.) is somewhat confused. On the one hand, the Nature folks appeared to assume that the current rate of methane emissions were due to climate change. On the other hand, a report from last year (small .pdf) indicates the emissions have been going on for a long time (but Vandana says there’s yet another paper disputing that). In addition, there are other mitigating factors as well, described in a somewhat snarky fashion in The Register. On the gripping hand, no-one knows what the current rate of warming will do to the future rate of emissions. Just because we might not be able to blame climate change now doesn’t mean it won’t impact the situation in the future. The key questions are ‘when’ and ‘how much’.

    As for (3.), from a systems perspective, the thing we’re looking for is what Peter Senge calls a trim tab. Senge’s trim tab (actually a servo tab) is something that can be used as a rudder for a rudder. Back in the day, before power steering for airplanes, it was really hard to move the barn-door-sized rudders on the big transports, so they’d put a small rudder on the rudder, and when the pilot turned it this way, the rudder would move that way, and the plane would turn this way in response. Unfortunately, the best example of a trim tab in this situation works in the wrong direction. You add a little heat and destabilize the clathrates, which starts a cycle that causes the heat to rise uncontrollably.

    What we want are trim tabs that push the cycle in the opposite direction. Methane-eating microbes is one example, and seeding the atmosphere is another, but as with any complex system there are side effects. Also known as effects.

    This post will end without a conclusion, because I haven’t got one, yet.

    #1992
    Avatar of Steve Shervais
    Steve Shervais
    Participant

    Greg
    Your SO2 seeding via KC-10 sounds like a good solution, and the instant off capability is exactly what would be wanted. The only problems standing in the way would then be the non-technical ones.

    One of my old profs back at PSU was Hal Linstone. He did some of the early work on the Delphi methodology. Not Visual Pascal, but a technique for getting a range of experts to agree on the answer to a fuzzy question. His other work involved the idea of multiple perspectives. Every problem situation can be looked at from three perspectives — Technical, Organizational, and Personal.

    Most technical people tend look for a technical solution to problems, I know I do. It turns out that T solutions are relatively easy, but almost always don’t work. That’s because the crux of the problem usually sits in the O or P domain. An Organization can’t do something because their rules won’t let them. It can be as simple as, “there’s no box to check for that”. It can be as hard as getting Canada and Russia to agree to American intervention in their environmental space. It can be as hard as pushback from, as you alluded to, cargo firms in Russia, or from the USAF, which wants to use those KC-10′s for something else. On the Personal front, a good technical solution can be stymied by the personal preferences (if it’s me) or predjudices (if it’s him) of a key person. Obama and Putin might not be talking this week, which prevents Organizational changes that would allow the Technical solution to work.

    Every problem has some of each of these components, and discovering a solution to the problem requires looking at it from each of the three perspectives.

    #2050
    Avatar of Vandana Singh
    Vandana Singh
    Participant

    Well, the reason I haven’t posted for so long is that a) I’ve been researching this stuff and other things and b) I’ve been writing my story. To sum up my researches:
    1) Ken Caldeira, author of the paper that Greg referred me to, very kindly spoke to me via skype and clarified some things for me. Quoting from my notes: when Mt. Pinatubo blew in 1991, it put SO2 into the atmosphere and there was a cooling effect, although there was less precipitation in the Amazon and the Gangetic plain. The effects lasted about a year. Based on this it seems according to Dr. Caldeira that short-term geoengineering is a less risky enterprise. His opinion seems to be that long-term geo-engineering carries significant risk. Also he said that climate (being a sort of average of weather) is linear and non-chaotic, whereas weather and
    human systems seem to be chaotic. Thus if you run a climate model with slightly different initial conditions, you don’t get a butterfly effect (unlike the case with weather as we know from Lorenz). I asked whether the uncertainties in temperature prediction from different climate models were the result of some kind of larger-scale chaotic effect, but he said these were due to our lack of knowledge of certain things, such as the effect of clouds. He said for all these reasons he does not take things like tipping points (in the context of methane outgassing) very seriously, although he does admit to some effects such as melting of the Greenland ice-sheets being ‘real’ tipping points. He did say that if I talked to other climate scientists some of them would disagree with him.

    This last I found interesting also, because it seems to point to a possible philosophical division between climate scientists. Someone I talked to at Los Alamos, and some papers I read from a group in U Alaska, Fairbanks, all seem to indicate that there are scientists who take methane outgassing very seriously as a tipping point, and by implication (perhaps ?) might consider that climate could have some chaotic aspects on a different time-scale than weather. I would love to know more about all this.

    One thing is clear though, that all climate models I’ve ever heard of that are taken seriously predict warming.

    Dr. Caldeira did say that SO2 geoengineering would not solve the problem of ocean acidification as we keep increasing our CO2 emissions, so it is by no means a magic bullet.

    I did come across some critiques of SO2 geoengineering at Realclimate.org, where one scientist comments that replacing the atmospheric SO2 lost as coal plants are phased out might be just fine, but going further is “fraught with peril.” http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/10/gee-whiz-geoengineering/comment-page-3/?wpmp_switcher=mobile.

    Now that the Russians are planning to drill hugely for oil and gas in the Arctic (even as Germany is closing coal-fired power plants because for the first time solar is more competitive) I think the issue of methane outgassing is going to become increasingly important as an issue to study and think about…

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