Is Arctic Methane a Bomb or Not?

We all know we’ve got thousands and thousands of nuclear bombs, that we can choose whether or not to detonate. The problem about the methane bomb is we don’t get to make that decision.

The above is the current map of permafrost areas in the Arctic and further south in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of these areas are now thawing rapidly, and carbon is therefore seeping out, both on land and underwater. In particular, the flooded earlier land permafrost area of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) is a concern, as this permafrost is being eaten up by a constantly warming Arctic Ocean.

But let’s start with the basics: Is the so–called methane time–bomb a bomb in the normal sense of the word? Obviously, it’s not a crafted, man–made explosive device. But then, is it able to explode, like a bomb? Well, the locals of Siberia have reported hearing loud bangs and seeing fire light up the night sky when these bangs occur, later to find the methane blowout craters on the ground. I think it fits the bill of a bomb, but hey, let’s be super–conservative here and not give that a pass.

It is, however a bomb or at least a time–bomb when you take the full picture into view. No, not the isolated hydrates on a bench in a lab, that’s an isolated and reductionistic case, typical of some of the worst kinds of human/science tradition. In the full picture view, the thawing over most of the permafrost areas on the map, is triggered by the planetary warming we’ve seen already: It’s now warm enough for this permafrost to thaw, year–on–year. And as parts of the resulting gas emissions from the thawing process are methane molecules, and the rest mostly carbon dioxide molecules, this thawing inevitably causes more warming.

Do you see the problem here? A thawing caused by the warming is causing more warming! We got ourselves a warming, self–reinforcing feedback loop. The thaw will increase with the increase in the thaw. This process clearly is already out of our hands. We don’t control it, and in particular we don’t control the thawing of subsea permafrost that is being done by an already non–frozen Arctic Ocean, in the case of the ESAS. As reported by field scientists doing research in the area, these drowned fields of permafrost will continue to thaw (and release their methane) until the day that the sea above them is gone and they’re exposed to air again (and that air needs to be cold like a freezer).

In a nutshell: It’s a bomb, and we triggered it already, but it will take much more time than your average Hollywood bomb to explode completely. It still doesn’t mean we are able to defuse it. We can send in the Bomb Squad, but all they can do is take measurements and selfies with the permafrost.