The Methane Trigger For Geoengineering  

Posted by Big Gav in

Jamaias Cascio has yet another column on geoengineering up at Open The Future, this one looking at the methane being released from the melting Siberian permafrost, with Jamais arguing events like this make some form of geoengineering mandatory.

I remain highly dubious about the vast majority of proposed geoengineering approaches, though the bioengineering approaches Jamais talks about are preferable to further experimentation upon the atmosphere or oceans (though large scale terra preta creation - or even "green concrete" seem like the best bet with the least risk of horrible side effects) - Methane Trigger for Geo & Bio Engineering.

Methane (CH4) is 20-25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). We're quite familiar with one source of atmospheric methane -- enteric fermentation in cattle (see my innumerable posts about cheeseburger carbon footprints). But there's another source of methane that has the potential to be far greater in volume, and correspondingly far more threatening to the climate. It's the methane from bogs and marshlands that is trapped under the Siberian permafrost.

Well, that was trapped. As the permafrost melts, the methane is now starting to leak out.
Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is leaking from the permafrost under the Siberian seabed, a researcher on an international expedition in the region told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter on Saturday.

"The permafrost now has small holes. We have found elevated levels of methane above the water surface and even more in the water just below. It is obvious that the source is the seabed," Oerjan Gustafsson, the Swedish leader of the International Siberian Shelf Study, told the newspaper.

The tests were carried out in the Laptev and east Siberian seas and used much more precise measuring equipment than previous studies, he said.

And that's pretty much all that's been said, so far. It does seem to confirm Russian reports from a couple of years ago. But it's unfortunate that the reporters covering this didn't mention just how much methane is trapped under the permafrost in Siberia, because the amount is staggering.

The most conservative estimates I've seen start at around 70 billion metric tons of methane -- the equivalent in greenhouse terms to 1.6 trillion metric tons of CO2. As a point of comparison, the total annual greenhouse footprint in the US is about 7 billion tons; globally, the annual footprint is about 30 billion tons.

If this methane leak continues to increase, we may be facing a disastrous result that no amount of renewable energy, vegetarianism, and bicycling will help. This is one scenario in which the deployment of geoengineering is over-determined, probably needing to remain in place for quite a while as we try to remove the methane (or, at worst, wait for it to cycle out naturally over the course of a decade or so). It's also a scenario that might require large-scale use of bioengineering. As I wrote a few years ago, when the Russian reports started to come out:
Chemical processes in the atmosphere break down CH4 (in combination with oxygen) into CO2+H2O -- carbon dioxide and water. In addition, certain bacteria -- known as methanotrophs -- actually consume methane, with the same chemical results. [...] It appears to me that what will be the most effective means of mitigating and remediating the gargantuan methane excursion from the Siberian permafrost melt would be using genetically-modified forms of methanotrophic bacteria, with greater oxidation capacity and the Archaea-derived resistance to extreme cold (these may well go hand-in-hand, as one way that deep sea methanotrophs survive the icy depths is through internal energy production from methane consumption). Given the size of the region, we'll need lots of them, but that's another advantage of biology over straight chemistry: the methanotrophs would be reproducing themselves.

Is it a perfect solution? No -- it's unproven, with unknown implications, and (at the very least) would result in some levels of CO2 emissions (although with a far smaller greenhouse footprint than the original methane). But the leak of permafrost methane is one of those lesser-known stories that could end up determining whether we make it through this century or not. It's one of the reasons why I think that geoengineering is a near-certainty.

Jamaias also has some thoughts about events that shaped the human evolutionary process - Thinking About Thinking.
Seventy-four thousand years ago, humanity nearly went extinct. A super-volcano at what's now Sumatra's Lake Toba erupted with a strength more than a thousand times greater than that of Mount St. Helens in 1981. Over 800 cubic kilometers of ash filled the skies of the northern hemisphere, lowering global temperatures and pushing a climate already on the verge of an ice age over the edge. Genetic evidence shows that at this time – many anthropologists say as a result – the population of Homo sapiens dropped to as low as a few thousand families.

It seems to have been a recurring pattern: Severe changes to the global environment put enormous stresses on our ancestors. From about 2.3 million years ago, up until about 10,000 years ago, the Earth went through a convulsion of glacial events, some (like the post-Toba period) coming on in as little as a few decades.

How did we survive? By getting smarter. Neurophysiologist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition – including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead – evolved due to the demands of this succession of rapid environmental changes. Neither as strong, nor as swift, nor as stealthy as our competitors, the hominid advantage was versatility. We know that the complexity of our tools increased dramatically over the course of this period. But in such harsh conditions, tools weren't enough – survival required cooperation, and that meant improved communication and planning. According to Calvin, over this relentless series of whiplash climate changes, simple language developed syntax and formal structure, and a rough capacity to target a moving animal with a thrown rock evolved into brain structures sensitized to looking ahead at possible risks around the corner.

Our present century may not be quite as perilous as an ice age in the aftermath of a super-volcano, but it is abundantly clear that the next few decades will pose enormous challenges to human civilization. It's not simply climate disruption, although that's certainly a massive threat. The end of the fossil fuel era, global food web fragility, population density and pandemic disease, as well as the emergence of radically transformative bio- and nanotechnologies – all of these offer ample opportunity for broad social and economic disruption, even devastation. And as good as the human brain has become at planning ahead, we're still biased by evolution to look for near-term, simple threats. Subtle, long-term risks, particularly those involving complex, global processes, remain devilishly hard to manage.

But here's an optimistic scenario for you: if the next several decades are as bad as some of us fear they could be, we can respond, and survive, the way our species has done time and again: By getting smarter. Only this time, we don't have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost intelligence. We can do it ourselves. Indeed, the process is already underway.


Oh, so now we are going to genetically modify bacteria by horizontally transferring the genetic material coding for methane oxidation?

We are currently losing the battle with pathogenic bacteria in the antibiotics arms race. They evolve faster than we can invent. If the energy gradient and resource availability (ie the methane) is there, "bacteria" will do it. Simple. So what makes these geniuses think that doing this is going to help?

As science has developed and become more specialised many fields have become dominated by technicians more than "true" scientists.

My experience of PhD life is there is very little Philosophy required. The emphasis is on papers published and technical achievement. Many don't ask why beyond jumping through these hoops.

On geoengineering and the introduction of the word 'triage' into the conversation.

Well - I won't comment on the likelihood of this scheme actually working, but it is less frightening than dumping sulphur in the upper atmosphere or seeding the oceans with iron or whatever.

By and large pyrolysis seems the option most deserving of large scale efforts at this point in time.

Actually, I was referring to modifying the already-methane-eating bacteria to give them better ability to survive in Siberian conditions. As it happens, we wouldn't necessarily even need to do that -- the Swedish research points to methane releases from the Siberian ocean underneath permafrost, and methanotrophic bacteria able to thrive in cold oceans already exist (just not there).

The larger point, though -- as Gav well knows -- is that I'm *not* arguing that geoengineering is the best approach, or wise, or even desirable. As I've posted repeatedly on OtF, we know what we need to do to head off catastrophic global warming, and we should do it.

But we aren't. Even the places in the world that signed Kyoto aren't working hard or fast enough. And even in the best plausible scenario, the US will have to play catch-up just to get to the point of not working quite hard enough.

And, as I noted in the linked post, if the trapped methane is released, even a super-post-Kyoto cut off all extra anthropogenic carbon move wouldn't be enough -- there's decades worth of global carbon output locked into that methane.

But even if we are forced to choose between near-extinction and geoengineering (in which case the choice is obvious for most of us), it's not meant as a solution. Ocean acidification still progresses, other negative results from carbon build-up still happens, etc. Geo has to be accompanied by serious carbon-reduction efforts.

BTW, the Alan Robock article about the hydrological cycle and atmospheric sulfur geoengineering argues persuasively that abruptly stopping geo after it's been working awhile could actually make things worse. But as Robock notes, that's under conditions in which there have been no efforts to otherwise reduce carbon emissions.

Thanks Jamais.

I think its worth continually repeating that there is no point trying emergency geoengineering if we keep our Business As Usual carbon emissions profile (barring a fossil fuel peak that occurs far earlier than I foresee).

My main worry is people will come up with one or more practicable geoengineering schemes and then just keep burning coal for all they are worth, having convinced themselves the problem is "solved".

But as you say - you've always argued against this.

Jamais makes an assumption that it is the cold that is preventing the oxidation of the leaking Siberian methane.

Where's the proof?

There is a maxim in microbiological ecology (still being tested) that bacteria are "everywhere" the environment selects for dominance.

It could be mineralogical effects, it could be the "absence" of necessary species (forming a symbiotic metabolic pathway). It could be that this pathway is not that energetic? It could be the absence of electron donors like O2 or NO3 (likely in a carbon rich anoxic peat).

In the micro environments of the Siberian soil will exist species of bacteria capable of exploiting CH4 if it is energetically feasible. And if the cold is a limitation, well that will soon be lifted.

This talk of genetically engineering bacteria to "save" us is just so much march gas by people who should know better.

I read the papers I use in my posts... and just becuase an academic states the safeguards and conditions should we attempt e.g. to inject sulphates into the atmosphere, doesn't mean that this message will carry thru to the populace or their representatives.

My concern is that these distractions have the same effect as the obfuscations of the tobacco lobby.

People like to hear "optimistic" messages and solutions... so much so that it might be one of the reasons we appear to be stuck in this interminable period of procrastination. Either our faith in our own geoengineeering (or other technological) abilities, or the delays caused by our consideration of them... delaying the changes we know we could make now that would make a difference.... but don't.

But after a time we can suddenly make decisive decisions when we are faced with "no choice".

The "beauty" of this is that we can then console ourselves with the rhetoric that we had to make these hard decisions as responsible citizens or leaders: after all, we had no choice.

A/ In the end, I had no choice, I had to have the heart lung transfer.

B/ Why didn't you stop smoking?

Is it because we think we have more choices than we do, that we delay making the choices that we must make?

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