Melting Permafrost (Part 4)

 


Russian scientists have recently found more new craters in Siberia, apparently formed by explosions of methane. Three were found last summer. They looked for more using satellite photos… and found more!

“What I think is happening here is, the permafrost has been acting as a cap or seal on the ground, through which gas can’t permeate,” says Paul Overduin, a permafrost expert at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. “And it reaches a particular temperature where there’s not enough ice in it to act that way anymore. And then gas can rush out.”

It’s rather dramatic. Some Russian villagers have even claimed to see flashes in the distance when these explosions occur. But how bad is it?

The Siberian Times

An English-language newspaper called The Siberian Times has a good article about these craters, which I’ll quote extensively:

• Anna Liesowska Dozens of new craters suspected in northern Russia, The Siberian Times, 23 February 2015.


B1 – famous Yamal hole in 30 kilometers from Bovanenkovo, spotted in 2014 by helicopter pilots. Picture: Marya Zulinova, Yamal regional government press service.

Respected Moscow scientist Professor Vasily Bogoyavlensky has called for ‘urgent’ investigation of the new phenomenon amid safety fears.

Until now, only three large craters were known about in northern Russia with several scientific sources speculating last year that heating from above the surface due to unusually warm climatic conditions, and from below, due to geological fault lines, led to a huge release of gas hydrates, so causing the formation of these craters in Arctic regions.

Two of the newly-discovered large craters—also known as funnels to scientists—have turned into lakes, revealed Professor Bogoyavlensky, deputy director of the Moscow-based Oil and Gas Research Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Examination using satellite images has helped Russian experts understand that the craters are more widespread than was first realised, with one large hole surrounded by as many as 20 mini-craters, The Siberian Times can reveal.


Four Arctic craters: B1 – famous Yamal hole in 30 kilometers from Bovanenkovo, B2 – recently detected crater in 10 kilometers to the south from Bovanenkovo, B3 – crater located in 90 kilometers from Antipayuta village, B4 – crater located near Nosok village, on the north of Krasnoyarsk region, near Taimyr Peninsula. Picture: Vasily Bogoyavlensky.

‘We know now of seven craters in the Arctic area,’ he said. ‘Five are directly on the Yamal peninsula, one in Yamal Autonomous district, and one is on the north of the Krasnoyarsk region, near the Taimyr peninsula.

‘We have exact locations for only four of them. The other three were spotted by reindeer herders. But I am sure that there are more craters on Yamal, we just need to search for them.

‘I would compare this with mushrooms: when you find one mushroom, be sure there are few more around. I suppose there could be 20 to 30 craters more.’

He is anxious to investigate the craters further because of serious concerns for safety in these regions.

The study of satellite images showed that near the famous hole, located in 30 kilometres from Bovanenkovo are two potentially dangerous objects, where the gas emission can occur at any moment.


Satellite image of the site before the forming of the Yamal hole (B1). K1 and the red outline show the hillock (pingo) formed before the gas emission. Yellow outlines show the potentially dangerous objects. Picture: Vasily Bogoyavlensky.

He warned: ‘These objects need to be studied, but it is rather dangerous for the researchers. We know that there can occur a series of gas emissions over an extended period of time, but we do not know exactly when they might happen.

‘For example, you all remember the magnificent shots of the Yamal crater in winter, made during the latest expedition in Novomber 2014. But do you know that Vladimir Pushkarev, director of the Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration, was the first man in the world who went down the crater of gas emission?

‘More than this, it was very risky, because no one could guarantee there would not be new emissions.’

Professor Bogoyavlensky told The Siberian Times: ‘One of the most interesting objects here is the crater that we mark as B2, located 10 kilometres to the south of Bovanenkovo. On the satellite image you can see that it is one big lake surrounded by more than 20 small craters filled with water.

‘Studying the satellite images we found out that initially there were no craters nor a lake. Some craters appeared, then more. Then, I suppose that the craters filled with water and turned to several lakes, then merged into one large lake, 50 by 100 metres in diameter.

‘This big lake is surrounded by the network of more than 20 ‘baby’ craters now filled with water and I suppose that new ones could appear last summer or even now. We now counting them and making a catalogue. Some of them are very small, no more than 2 metres in diameter.’

‘We have not been at the spot yet,’ he said. ‘Probably some local reindeer herders were there, but so far no scientists.’

He explained: ‘After studying this object I am pretty sure that there was a series of gas emissions over an extended period of time. Sadly, we do not know, when exactly these emissions occur, i.e. mostly in summer, or in winter too. We see only the results of this emissions.’

The object B2 is now attracting special attention from the researchers as they seek to understand and explain the phenomenon. This is only 10km from Bovanenkovo, a major gas field, developed by Gazprom, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Yet older satellite images do not show the existence of a lake, nor any craters, in this location.

Not only the new craters constantly forming on Yamal show that the process of gas emission is ongoing actively.

Professor Bogoyavlensky shows the picture of one of the Yamal lakes, taken by him from the helicopter and points on the whitish haze on its surface.


Yamal lake with traces of gas emissions. Picture: Vasily Bogoyavlensky.

He commented: ‘This haze that you see on the surface shows that gas seeps that go from the bottom of the lake to the surface. We call this process ‘degassing’.

‘We do not know, if there was a crater previously and then turned to lake, or the lake formed during some other process. More important is that the gases from within are actively seeping through this lake.

‘Degassing was revealed on the territory of Yamal Autonomous District about 45 years ago, but now we think that it can give us some clues about the formation of the craters and gas emissions. Anyway, we must research this phenomenon urgently, to prevent possible disasters.’

Professor Bogoyavlensky stressed: ‘For now, we can speak only about the results of our work in the laboratory, using the images from space.

‘No one knows what is happening in these craters at the moment. We plan a new expedition. Also we want to put not less than four seismic stations in Yamal district, so they can fix small earthquakes, that occur when the crater appears.

‘In two cases locals told us that they felt earth tremors. The nearest seismic station was yet too far to register these tremors.

‘I think that at the moment we know enough about the crater B1. There were several expeditions, we took probes and made measurements. I believe that we need to visit the other craters, namely B2, B3 and B4, and then visit the rest three craters, when we will know their exact location. It will give us more information and will bring us closer to understanding the phenomenon.’

He urged: ‘It is important not to scare people, but to understand that it is a very serious problem and we must research this.’

In an article for Drilling and Oil magazine, Professor Bogoyavlensky said the parapet of these craters suggests an underground explosion.

‘The absence of charred rock and traces of significant erosion due to possible water leaks speaks in favour of mighty eruption (pneumatic exhaust) of gas from a shallow underground reservoir, which left no traces on soil which contained a high percentage of ice,’ he wrote.

‘In other words, it was a gas-explosive mechanism that worked there. A concentration of 5-to-16% of methane is explosive. The most explosive concentration is 9.5%.’

Gas probably concentrated underground in a cavity ‘which formed due to the gradual melting of buried ice’. Then ‘gas was replacing ice and water’.

‘Years of experience has shown that gas emissions can cause serious damage to drilling rigs, oil and gas fields and offshore pipelines,’ he said. ‘Yamal craters are inherently similar to pockmarks.

‘We cannot rule out new gas emissions in the Arctic and in some cases they can ignite.’

This was possible in the case of the crater found at Antipayuta, on the Yamal peninsula.

‘The Antipayuta residents told how they saw some flash. Probably the gas ignited when appeared the crater B4, near Taimyr peninsula. This shows us, that such explosion could be rather dangerous and destructive.

‘We need to answer now the basic questions: what areas and under what conditions are the most dangerous? These questions are important for safe operation of the northern cities and infrastructure of oil and gas complexes.’


Crater B3 located in 90 kilometres from Antipayuta village, Yamal district. Picture: local residents.


Crater B4 located near Nosok village, on the north of Krasnoyarsk region, near Taimyr Peninsula. Picture: local residents.

How bad is it?

Since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, some people are getting nervous. If global warming releases the huge amounts of methane trapped under permafrost, will that create more global warming? Could we be getting into a runaway feedback loop?

The Washington Post has a good article telling us to pay attention, but not panic:

• Chris Mooney, Why you shouldn’t freak out about those mysterious Siberian craters, Chris Mooney, 2 March 2015.

David Archer of the University of Chicago, a famous expert on climate change and the carbon cycle, took a look at thes craters and did some quick calculations. He estimated that “it would take about 20,000,000 such eruptions within a few years to generate the standard Arctic Methane Apocalypse that people have been talking about.”

More importantly, people are measuring the amount of methane in the air. We know how it’s doing. For example, you can make graphs of methane concentration here:

• Earth System Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division, Data visualization.

Click on a northern station like Alert, the scary name of a military base and research station in Nunavut—the huge northern province in Canada:




(Alert is on the very top, near Greenland.)

Choose Carbon cycle gases from the menu at right, and click on Time series. You’ll go to another page, and then choose Methane—the default choice is carbon dioxide. Go to the bottom of the page and click Submit and you’ll get a graph like this:



Methane has gone up from about 1750 to 1900 nanomoles per mole from 1985 to 2015. That’s a big increase—but not a sign of incipient disaster.

A larger perspective might help. Apparently from 1750 to 2007 the atmospheric CO2 concentration increased about 40% while the methane concentration has increased about 160%. The amount of additional radiative forcing due to CO2 is about 1.6 watts per square meter, while for methane it’s about 0.5:

Greenhouse gas: natural and anthropogenic sources, Wikipedia.

So, methane is significant, and increasing fast. So far CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. But I’m glad Russian scientists are doing things like this:





The latest expedition to Yamal crater was initiated by the Russian Center of Arctic Exploration in early November 2014. The researchers were first in the world to enter this crater. Pictures: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Center of Arctic Exploration

Previous posts

For previous posts in this series, see:

Melting Permafrost (Part 1).

Melting Permafrost (Part 2).

Melting Permafrost (Part 3).

17 Responses to Melting Permafrost (Part 4)

  1. ProudCanadian says:

    Your remark concerning Nunavut is deplorable. The immense majority of Canadians is very proud that we have a 100% Native province, and several territories that are just as autonomous. It may be inhospitable to you, but it is our country, and the Native Canadians are who taught us to survive in it. Please keep your prejudices and snides where they belong.

    • John Baez says:

      I used to wonder why “Indians” in the US wanted to live in the driest, hottest places. Then I realized that the invaders pushed the original inhabitants out of all the better farmland and into the desert. I think the fact that Nunavut but not Quebec or Ontario is run by native peoples is the result of a similar phenomenon. But I’m certainly not claiming that Canada is worse than Australia, the United States, or other colonial settlements in this respect!

      We find ourselves where we are and all we can do now is make the best of the situation. I found myself pondering this kind of question a lot while tromping around northern Thailand near the Golden Triangle. The ‘hill tribes‘—so-called because they had been pushed out of the more fertile flatlands—are a bunch of interesting cultures who got caught between nations. It’s not clear what will become of them.

      Since it wasn’t the main point of my post, and it seems to be distracting, I’ll delete the remark that annoyed you.

      • Eugene says:

        I haven’t seen the remark before it was deleted. But with all due respect, the Inuit didn’t end up in a place like Grise Fiord just because they thought it would be a great place to live. See this Wkipedia article, for example.

  2. nad says:

    From RealClimate:

    If the bubble was pure methane, it would have contained about … wait for it … 0.000003 Gtons of methane.

    Unfortunately he doesn’t say how he does hte calculations, so I am now trying to make quick guesses. Maybe someone here has more clues.

    He assumes

    How much methane came out of that hole in Siberia? The hole is about 80 meters in diameter and 60-100 meters deep.”

    Let’s assume for simplicity the volume to be a block of 100m, i.e. one hole has a hole volume of 10^6 m^3. The density of methane is according to Wikipedia

    0.656 g/L at 25 °C, 1 atm
    0.716 g/L at 0 °C, 1 atm
    0.42262 g cm−3
    (at 111 K [−162 °C; −260 °F])[2]

    I don’t know which temperature his calculations are based on. I haven’t found any temperature pressure density diagrams.
    Let’s assume a density of 1g/liter (I guess this Wikipedia L is supposed to mean liter??) at 1 atm and simply scale the density by a factor X due to higher pressure then this gives a density of \frac{X g}{10^{-3}m^3} , so in one hole there
    is 10^6*X*10^{3} g = X*10^9 g methane. Now
    \frac{10^{15}}{X*10^9}=10^6* 1/X. Since he has calculated the number 2*10^7 does this mean that his scaling factor was in the order of 10^{-1} ???
    I’d rather have guessed a factor of 1000….which would give 1000 holes for a “Shakhova event”. I can’t spot the mistake right now and I have to run, but somehow I think this calculation might require further scrutiny.

  3. domenico says:

    I had read of these craters some weeks ago, and it can be a demonstrable problem if there is a known cause.
    The ground is wet, so that a methane ignition for discharge, or heat, or friction, is unlike; but there are spontaneous combustion like ignis fatuus, with phosphine that can ignite the methane (another cause can be a lightning).

    But if it so, than the methane emission can be great (the methane spill from permafrost can be continuous on great surface, without explosion), and the ignition can happen only in some points, where there is/was decomposition to obtain phosphine, a well containing methane, a right temperature, and so on; so that the methane emission for hot permafrost can be calculated statistically, or measured on-field experimentally, and it could be a problem.

    • nad says:

      …and the ignition can happen only in some points, where there is/was decomposition to obtain phosphine, a well containing methane, a right temperature, and so on;

      A crucial question is here, in the case of an explosion, how much of the methane gets burned and how much is released.

      It seems the RealClimate Researchers think not much is getting
      burned, at least they do not mention a “burning proportion”. Anyways I still can’t find the mistake in the calculations in my comment. Seems nobody is interested in this. Domenico can you spot the mistake?

      • domenico says:

        I had thought that the whole permafrost, near the sea (where the temperature can be highest), or where the temperature is high (limit zone of permafrost), can releasing methane.
        The distribution of the holes, or lakes, can give an information on the release (so that a line can be traced between the holes – and lakes – to estimate the surface subject to release: temperate zone); I think that it is not important the methane content in the well before the explosion, that could be a sporadic event.
        I have not access to the original article of Shakhova (there is not an article in arxiv)

        http://link.springer.com/article/10.1134%2FS1028334X10020091

        so that I cannot say what is the theory, but if a percentage of the world permafrost can start a not explosive leak, and the whole permafrost have a surface of 2210^6 km^2 = 2210^12 m^2

        http://www.the-cryosphere.net/6/221/2012/tc-6-221-2012.html

        the the estimation of Shakhova can be realizable, in the worst case.

        • domenico says:

          I am thinking that the perimeter of the global permafrost, multiplied for the advancing of warm temperature (caused by the global warming), multiplied for a standard permafrost dept, can give the world release of methane (estimating the concentration of methane in permafrost).

        • nad says:

          I think that it is not important the methane content in the well before the explosion, that could be a sporadic event.

          Well as you said it “can give an information on the release.” That is I guess the main point is the question how much methane is there lurking in the permafrost, like how deep are the methane layers and how much are they compressed.

          If one takes the 10^3 g/m^3 density of methane at normal pressure then 10^{15}g (the “Shakhtova weight”) require a volume of 10^{12} m^3 if I didn’t miscalculate and since (0.5*10^{-1}m)*2*10* 10^{12}m^2 = 10^{12} m^3 this would mean that one would need a depth of 5 cm methane in all the roughly 2*10* 10^{12}m^2 of permafrost you cited above (if it would all melt) in order to provoke a “Shakhtova event”.

        • nad says:

          I just saw that the “Shakhova event” is actually not 10^15 g as I had used above but 50 times that quantity.
          So that would make 50000 holes necessary in the “hole calculation” instead of 1000 and a depth of 50*5cm=2.50m for the permafrost calculation. This is still not very much, especially with regard to the fact that the holes can be 100m deep.

        • nad says:

          ….and the factor 50 make the real climate scaling factor to be roughly 2…so thats at least bigger than 1, which sounds more plausible.

        • nad says:

          …and if one would take the ideal gas law as an Ansatz and assumes constant temperature than a factor of 10 in pressure would scale the Volume (and thus the density by the inverse) rather by 10^{-1} and not 10^{-3} as I had guessed a bit too fast. But I still can’t recover his factor 2, seems he made some special temperature assumptions.

        • nad says:

          But I still can’t recover his factor 2, seems he made some special temperature assumptions.

          I should also add that my volume assumptions is rather an outer
          bounding box and he took probably an average size. Anyway up to one of order of magnitude his result seems to be to me now plausible.

          Considering the size of permafrost thawing here is a -what looks like a rather helpful link about
          Methane in permafrost. It is in german though. It’s a wiki which gathers climate change info’S like the Azimuth project. The wiki itself seems to be funded by climate service center and the public german information portal It says that:

          Modellprojektionen ergeben eine Verringerung der Permafrostgebiete der Nordhemisphäre bis 2080 um ca. ein Drittel. Die Ausdehnung der zusammenhängenden Permafrostzone von gegenwärtig 10,5 könnte sich sogar auf etwa 1 Million km^2 reduzieren. Außerdem wird die saisonale Tiefe des Auftaubodens um bis zu 50% und mehr zunehmen.[2]

          where [2] is:
          ↑ Lawrence, D.M., and A.G. Slater (2005): A projection of severe near-surface permafrost degradation during the 21st century, Geophys. Res. Lett., 32

          translation without guarantee:

          “Until 2080 models reveal a decrease of permafrost land in the northern hemissphere by roughly one third. The extension of the permafrost zone from now 10,5 could go down to 1 million km^2. Apart from that the seasonal depth of the permafrost soil could raise by 50% and more[2]”

          where I don’t understand what they mean with “extension of the permafrost zone”, that is I would assume that they mean by that the whole surface of land permafrost in the northern hemissphere, but that would then mean that of the 2*10^{10} km^2 you cited above as total global land permafrost surface only 10^7 km^2 is in the northern hemissphere, that sounds strange.
          Moreover 1 million is not one third of 10 million.
          So what do they mean by that? One should probably look into the article, but as you I don’t have access to those.

          and

          Wenn Permafrost im Sommer oberflächlich auftaut, wird bei der Zersetzung von organischem Material Kohlendioxid gebildet und unter anaeroben Bedingungen, z.B. unter der Wasseroberfläche, Methan (CH4). Beim nächsten Gefrieren werden beide Kohlenstoffverbindungen im gefrorenen Boden gespeichert. Die gesamte im Permafrost der Nordhalbkugel gespeicherte Menge an Kohlenstoff wird auf etwa 1000 Gigatonnen[3] C geschätzt,[4] nach neueren Schätzungen sogar auf 1672 Gigatonnen und damit auf die Hälfte des weltweiten Kohlenstoffs im Boden.[5]

          [3] is the explanation that 1 gigton is 10^{12} kg and [4]
          is:
          ↑ Zimov, S.A., E.A.G. Schuur, and F.S. Chapin III (2006): Permafrost and the Global Carbon Budget, Science 312, 1612-1613
          and [5] is:
          ↑ Tarnocai, C., et al: (2009): Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region, Global Biochemical Cycles 23, doi:10.1029/2008GB003327

          translation without guarantee:

          When the surface of permafrost thaws in summer then upon the decay of organic material carbondioxide is produced and if there are anaerobic conditions like under water then methane (CH4) is produced. When the soil freezes again both carbon compounds are stored in the soil. The total amount of carbon is estimated [4] at roughly 1000 gigatons C [3] and therefore to be half of the estimated carbon in soil.

          When the soil freezes again both carbon compounds are stored in the soil.

          …where I wonder how much of that is really kept in the soil.

        • domenico says:

          The Gruber data give 16-22 million km^2, but I think that the measure have some uncertainty (there is a measured seabed permafrost), but the measure of the Climate Service Center is for the Norther Hemisphere; the permafrost is present in the Southern Hemisphere:
          https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/frozenground/whereis_fg.html
          in the seabed, in Antarctica, South America and New Zealand; so that the difference can be due to different definitions. The Gruber estimate for the north 60 degree Sud is 13-18 millions of km^2 (without Antarctica and subsea ), so that the estimate are near.

        • nad says:

          I wrote:

          but that would then mean that of the 2*10^{10} km^2 you cited above as total global land permafrost surface

          oops a typo you cited of course 2*10^7 km^2 or in other words S.Gruber says in the abstract:

          The global permafrost region, i.e. the exposed land surface below which some permafrost can be expected, is estimated to be 22 \pm 3 * 10^6 km^2.

          But then this seems to be different from what is called “global permafrost area”, because this is about the same size or even smaller (which is strange because you would think that it includes land permafrost, or is it a typo?). That is S. Gruber writes in the sentence before:

          The global permafrost area including Antarctic and sub-sea permafrost is estimated to be 16 - 21 * 10^6 km^2.

          You wrote:

          The Gruber estimate for the north 60 degree Sud is 13-18 millions of km^2 (without Antarctica and subsea ), so that the estimate are near.

          Yes that is closer to the 10.5 million from the Wiki for the northern hemissphere.

          But then in the link you gave at the National Snow and Ice Data Center under the titel:
          “Where is frozen ground in the Northern Hemisphere?” it says:

          Permafrost exists where the ground stays at or below 0° Celsius (32° Fahrenheit) for at least two years in a row. 24 percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost underneath it (Figure 1). So, permafrost makes up 23 million square kilometers (9 million square miles).

          May it be that those different areas are due to different definitions of “land under permafrost”, “permafrost area”, “exposed land surface below which some permafrost can be expected” ? That is seabed permafrost may be called “land that has permafrost underneath it”?

  4. nad says:

    I wrote:

    but that would then mean that of the 2*10^{10} km^2 you cited above as total global land permafrost surface

    oops a typo you cited of course 2*10^7 km^2 or in other words S.Gruber says in the abstract:

    The global permafrost region, i.e. the exposed land surface below which some permafrost can be expected, is estimated to be 22 ± 3 × 10^6 km^2.

    But then this seems to be different from what is called “global permafrost area”, because this is about the same size or even smaller (which is strange because you would think that it includes land permafrost, or is it a typo?). That is S. Gruber writes in the sentence before:

    <

    blockquote>The global permafrost area including Antarctic and sub-sea permafrost is estimated to be 16–21 × 10^6 km^2.

    You wrote:

    The Gruber estimate for the north 60 degree Sud is 13-18 millions of km^2 (without Antarctica and subsea ), so that the estimate are near.

    Yes that is closer to the 10.5 million from the Wiki for the northern hemissphere.

    But then in the link you gave at the National Snow and Ice Data Center under the titel:
    “Where is frozen ground in the Northern Hemisphere?” it says:

    Permafrost exists where the ground stays at or below 0° Celsius (32° Fahrenheit) for at least two years in a row. 24 percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost underneath it (Figure 1). So, permafrost makes up 23 million square kilometers (9 million square miles).

    May it be that those different areas are due to different definitions of “land under permafrost”, “permafrost area”, “exposed land surface below which some permafrost can be expected” ? That is seabed permafrost may be called “land that has permafrost underneath it”?

    • nad says:

      Since the formulas didn’t parse and the the reply position was wrong I recommented it under Domenicos reply, so this comment here is double and can be deleted.

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