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Methane and warming

The media are also full of a new methane scare. An article in Science is said to claim that the Siberian Arctic bubbles release much more methane to the atmosphere than expected (by someone who had wrong expectations). For example, the Daily Mail says:

Methane escaping from Arctic faster than expected and could stoke global warming, warn scientists
But could it really "stoke" global warming? If you just read the very same article, you learn that the answer is almost certainly No. It's useful to review the basic numbers.

The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is really tiny, just 1.8 ppm. That's still 150% above the 0.7 ppm preindustrial level. The ice ages saw 0.3 ppm - 0.4 ppm of it. (Recall that the analogous numbers for CO2 are 388 ppm, 280 ppm, 180 ppm.) Methane only stays in the atmosphere for 10 years or so, well below the time for CO2.

One-third of the man-made methane is produced in agriculture. The natural gas contains 87% of methane. The gas is also released when coal is mined. And only one-third of the people produce farts with methane. Despite widely believed misconceptions, the gas, CH4, is actually odorless and non-toxic. The smell of farts mostly comes from hydrogen sulfide (and the so-called mercaptans). But yes, methane burns and explodes pretty nicely.

The Siberian Arctic sea bubbles are the largest localized natural source of methane. It's been reported in the article that 8 million tons are being released from that place every year. There exists no evidence that this amount has increased in any way during the recent millennia; the articles usually quote scientists who admit this fact but this fact is conveniently hidden near the end of the articles so that most readers will never get there because that would weaken the "message" of the "story".

Multiply 8 million tons by a factor of twenty - see EPA - and you will see that this amount creates the same greenhouse effect as 160 million tons of CO2. That's just 6% of the annual man-made CO2 emissions. The man-made CO2 may create something like 0.006 °C of warming per year - assuming that the whole 20th century warming was man-made (add or remove a factor of two according to your taste). So the methane causes an extra 0.00036 °C of global warming per year.

Will you survive an extra heat of this magnitude? Have you seen a single article that would actually tell you what the expected warming caused by this "scary" methane is?

Recall, once again, that the gas only survives in the atmosphere for 10 years or so. Even if the Siberian Arctic methane emissions increased by a factor of 100, for unpredictable reasons, it would still not be a problem. Everyone who puts his face into a worried shape because of this "issue" is an irrational sourball.

You will never learn such basic and relevant numbers from the stories in the media - and sometimes not either from the scientific articles - because they're inconvenient. Some heretical readers could even dare to suggest that 0.00036 °C of warming per year is a smaller catastrophe than a collision with a huge asteroid ;-) so it's better to show no inconvenient numbers at all, right? The very point of all these articles is to scare the people which is why it is important for the writers to hide all the basic facts. Any of these basic facts shows that there is absolutely nothing to be worried about. So when you read headlines such as
Seabed methane leaks cause alarm,
you will know that they only cause alarm among complete idiots. This particular painful title was used in The Age, Australia. It's OK for researchers in the ivory towers to investigate 0.00036 °C warming effects of some gas in a seabed but it's completely dishonest for them to claim that they should be funded because these questions matter for the people's lives.

Whatever holds for CO2 is even more true for the methane: its effect on the climate is negligible. Methane concentrations have been, much like CO2 concentrations, correlated with the temperature during the glaciation cycles but the causal relationship goes from the temperature to the methane. Warmer oceans and seabeds can't store so much methane so they release more of it to the atmosphere. But that means almost nothing else.

As I have emphasized many times, the very accurate historical correlation between CH4 and CO2 concentrations during the glaciation cycles shows that none of them could have been responsible for the temperature swings because such a theory would have no explanation for the correlation of CO2 and CH4 between one another.

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reader VangelV said...

Great posting as usual. That said, I do have a problem with one of your statements. You write, "Methane only stays in the atmosphere for 10 years or so, well below the time for CO2." Well, most of the papers that I have looked at don't have CO2 staying in the atmosphere as long as the IPCC claims. The average tends to be around 10 years.

reader Frank said...

Michael D. Lemonick has written a fairly balanced account of Arctic methane (More Warming Worries: Methane from the Arctic, Time Magazine (online) Thursday, Mar. 04, 2010.)

But the article has this blooper, "The number itself isn't what worries people, though: it's whether this newly identified methane source is part of an ominous trend."


The rate of increase of methane in the atmosphere has been declining for 30 years. True, global methane has risen since 2007, but from 1999 to 2996 the trend was essentially zero. NOAA has a graphic: URL:

reader Lumo said...

Dear Frank,

well, do you agree that the (decelerated) data you mentioned - and others - show that it is extremely unlikely that there is an "ominous" trend?

I am puzzled why some people want to see "ominous trends" everywhere and anywhere. The release of methane is a natural process, and we are just learning about these processes, much like others. The detailed sources of methane haven't been observed well in the past.

So we're really observing them for the first time or the second time. Why should we see an "ominous trend" in anything we have observed once or twice? This is just insane. Every time you meet a new person, are you scared that she is a killer? Or if you meet her for the second time and she has darker gloves than during the first meeting?

There exists no reason to think that a sudden dangerous process will start exactly in this corner of the world if it hadn't started for hundreds of millions of years and nothing has really qualitatively changed about the seabeds.

Thinking otherwise is a sign of a mental illness. To be as worried as Mr Lemonick is very strange for as phlegmatic a person as he undoubtedly is.

Best wishes

reader ColinD said...

Lubos, 'ominous trends, worse than we thought, catastrophic etc' are necessary from the warmist standpoint. I would be impossible to get anyone worked up about a fraction of a degree increase over 50 - 100 years i.e. imperceptible. Take the recent NH cold winter, it will require a lengthy period of warmer temps just to offset that cold let alone pick up on a net warming trend.

reader JP said...

Lumo, just a quick question - does you calculation also include the resulting CO2 from when the methane decays? Is it negligable?

reader John M said...

Frank comments on Time Magazine claiming an "ominous trend".

Is that anything like "ominous signs"?

reader Lumo said...

Dear John M, I see: I knew that the word "ominous" has already appeared in a similar context, decades ago. That was the place: ominous signs of global freezing. ;-)

Dear JP, yes, it's negligible. First, CO2 appears when CH4 "oxidates", e.g. burns, not during every ordinary "decay". The methane doesn't spontaneously decay, after all. Second, even if it burns, the greenhouse effect from 1 kg of CO2 is equal just to the greenhouse effect of 1/20 kg of CH4 - so by changing CH4 to CO2, you're reducing "its" greenhouse effect roughly 20 times.

Best wishes

reader jae said...

Lubos, you forgot the feedback loop. Much of the methane is produced by termite farts. As the earth warms, there will be more termites; hence more termite farts... :)

reader Mike Lemonick said...

I appreciate the comment suggesting I'd written a fairly balanced article. I'm a little confused about the supposed "blooper." Is it incorrect to say people are worried about WHETHER it's an ominous trend? Is it really foolish to ask the question?

I think I'm pretty clear about the fact that there's no basis at this point for claiming it IS such a trend. But may be not clear enough.

reader Lumo said...

Dear Mike,

welcome here. I think that your question, whether it's incorrect to suggest that "people worry whether XY", is a pretty universal question about the nature of rational thinking and the relationship between reason and emotions.

Yes, I think it is incorrect, at least from a scientific viewpoint. The correct part of what you're saying is nothing else than the definition of a "worry": people worry because they can imagine that something bad may happen. This is pretty much a vacuous statement, an observation that "worries exist" and "some people sometimes worry".

The very usage of "whether" is really incorrect on linguistic grounds, too. One can "worry that" something happens, not "worry whether" something happens, because if it doesn't happen, there's no reason to worry. The uncertainty hiding in the word "whether" is already included in the verb "worry" and you are incorrectly including it twice. You have to because you don't know "that" it will happen.

So the valid part of your statement is a misleading linguistic tautology. But at the same moment, you're creating the impression that there is a reason for this particular worry, even though you know that it's not the case. You're trying to create this impression, but whenever you're caught, you just reply that you only asked "whether". Well, you didn't. You did both.

To say the least, the motivation for such a worry is not greater than the motivation to worry about anything else I can imagine.

For example, you have written many more bytes of stuff on my blog during one day (today) than during the previous 5 years combined. Is it a part of an ominous trend? Will your contributions to TRF multiply by more than 1,000 every day? How will I fight the incredible tera-gigabyte spam that will come within a week? ;-)

There's not much difference between my example and yours. Note that every event in the world is a "change" of something and any change, when extrapolated far enough, becomes unpleasant and later catastrophic. Should we worry about any event observed in the world? Or is there a reason why one unjustified reason to worry is put above others?

Sorry to say but I think that you are trying to spread the irrational fear quite deliberately. You are deliberately obscuring the boundary between the things that are known and the things that are pure - and very unlikely - speculations. You probably need it for your "story". But there's really no "story" and it's just bad if you have to invent untrue stories (just for existential reasons)?

You are writing things that have deliberately two vastly different interpretations. One of them is that "there is a known reason to worry". That's what you're trying to sell to the readers, and if you do, that's how you're making money. The other interpretation is that "you're only asking whether something will happen". You choose this interpretation whenever you're caught that you were not telling the truth.

You can't have it both ways. You're clearly benefiting out of spreading the (unjustifiable) fear about the methane emotions, so you must also be held responsible for this fear.