Enter stage left: Doom from methane!

I have to say, regretfully, that my local newspaper, the Canberra Times, has published the worst scaremongering story about ‘climate change’ that I have read this year. It appeared on August 18, was entitled ‘Beware the dragon’s breath’, was sub-titled ‘It’s time to address Australia’s wilful ignorance and goggling stubbornness about runaway climate change’, and was written by Julian Cribb. He ought not to be held responsible for these titles, which are designed to get you to read the article. They nonetheless are, as the IPCC likes to say, ‘consistent with’ its message.

What’s it about? Methane, or CH4. It’s familiar to most of us, because it’s the principal component of Australia’s natural gas, which we used every day to cook with, and in winter to heat our houses. When used to generate electricity natural gas produces about half the equivalent emissions of carbon dioxide than the amount of coal that would be needed to do the same job. AGL proudly markets it, and tells us all how virtuous it is.

Isn’t that a good thing? Well, Mr Cribb somehow forgot to mention any of it, because his worry is about something else, runaway climate change induced by the escape of methane from the frozen tundra in the Arctic. How would that work? As he explains it, there may be ‘as much as 4 trillion tonnes of the stuff locked in permafrost and shallow marine deposits’, and people have noticed its escaping, in the form of gas on land and bubbles in the sea. And that’s a problem, because Mr Cribb tells us that methane is a gas with 20 to 25 times the climate-forcing potential of carbon dioxide.

You thought CO2 was bad enough. Whoa! Think of the extra power of of CH4, and be very, very frightened. At about this point into the article I realised that something was wrong, and who better to explain the error than one of the pillars of the IPCC and orthodox climate science, the somewhat famous Raypierre, or more grandly, Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences Raymond Pierrehumbert of the University of Chicago, who has said this:

It’s meaningless to sound off about how much more ‘potent’ a greenhouse gas methane (natural gas) may be, compared to CO2, unless you also take into account how small methane emissions are relative to CO2. The important thing to understand is that essentially all of the climate effects of methane emissions disappear within 20 years of cessation of emissions…

And how small are methane emissions? According to one straightforward source, when CO2 was 368 ppm (a few years ago), methane made up another 1.7 ppm. Today the ratio is about 400 to 1.8. That’s what Raypierre was on about. Most carbon dioxide, incidentally, is from natural sources, but we humans do produce some of the methane, mostly through gas leaks from gas wells and gas piping, which may be diminishing as producers tighten up their management (no pun intended). Mr Cribb’s 20 to 25 times the potential  of CO2 seems to me an exaggeration, too.

But of course I’m missing Mr Cribb’s point. The planet, as we all believe, has been warming, well, until a decade or so ago, and as that continues the icy tundra will melt and the methane will escape — and of course the ice seas will warm, and doom will come. So let’s look quickly at what is involved here.

The area of tundra in the Arctic region is huge indeed. A large part of northern Canada and northern Russia and Siberia falls into this category. Arctic tundra can be defined as soil below which is permafrost, which is frozen soil that can be metres or hundreds of metres thick. No trees will grow in it, and it is colonised by small plants which have a small and vigorous growing season before snow causes dieback, the process to be repeated in the following season.

The temperature in winter can be far below zero, and summer temperatures are not hot at all. It would take an extraordinary amount of energy to begin to melt the permafrost. The increase in temperatures that has been experienced over the past century is not out of the ordinary (there is of course a dispute about this) and in any case every winter brings the thawing process to a halt. We await indication of whether or not the current absence of surface warming is to continue.

The Arctic Sea has a common temperature of around 2 degrees C, and much more attention is given to the amount of sea ice there than to the actual temperature of the water, which cannot go below about minus 2 degrees C because of salinity. In fact the Arctic Sea is not the coldest sea on the Northern Hemisphere — oddly enough, the sea ice keeps it comparatively warm. Since we don’t have many thermometers on Arctic land or sea, and methane is currently fashionable, people are discovering things that may or may not have been there before. We just don’t know.

It would have been nice for Mr Cribb to said some of this, without relying on me to provide some balance. But no, that would get in the way of his diatribe, in which he suddenly switches from methane to carbon dioxide, and to our governments’ giving the green light to vast new coal and gas extraction projects. They appear not to comprehend the probable consequences. This is gambling with the lives of every Australian, indeed every human… Even if the risk of runaway warming is remote, is it rational to ignore it…

I think this is terrible stuff, and he makes it worse with the following fantasy: The good tidings are the United States, India and China appear,  finally, to have decided to do something about the climate threat and a global consensus is rapidly building towards the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Paris…

I will believe that when I see it. Oh, by the way, Mr Cribb is a science journalist who has written 8000 articles, and books called The Coming Famine and The Poisoned Planet, just in case you were wondering. I wonder if they are all like this piece. Good science journalism it is not.

[Update: a new paper describes the discovery of hundreds of methane seeps off the Atlantic coast, and suggests that there may be ten thousand or more of them. Oh, and other evidence suggests that these ones have been there for thousands of years.

Sharke et al. Nature Geoscience (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2232]

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • John Morland says:

    I have written a letter to the Canberra Times mentioning what Julian Cribb did not say in his article, it was published last Thursday. As expected letters from alarmists are commenting on my letter, the first on Saturday, the second today. I have responded to the first (before seeing the second), but in effect partially responded to the second. Neither respondant had read my letter correctly.

    The first letter (some of 1st paragraph and 2nd paragraph and all of the last paragraph- the Venus bit -were deleted):

    Once again Julian Cribb describes yet
    another catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) scenario (CT 18/8/2014
    Times2 p.1) In his article he describes methane (CH4) escaping from the Artic
    tundra causing a “runaway greenhouse effect”. To support his argument he
    mentions CH4 “has 20 to 25 times the climate-forcing potential of carbon
    dioxide” (CO2).

    CO2 having so far failed to cause any “tipping”
    climate points, now comes CH4 to do the job and wipe out humanity. Doom, gloom
    and we will all be rooned.

    Well there are two important facts Julian did not
    explain. First atmospheric concentration in parts per million for CH4 is a tiny
    1.8, C02’s is 400 and water vapour – the strongest atmospheric “greenhouse” gas
    – is anywhere between 100 to 50 000. Secondly, the relevant infrared (IR)
    absorption lines of CH4 (7.5 – 8 microns) and CO2 (13-17 microns), contributing
    to the “greenhouse effect”, are largely overlapped by water vapour’s far wider
    relevant IR absorption lines (4.6 to 8.1 microns and, 12.5 microns upwards).
    The effect is most of the energy available at the CH4 and CO2 absorption lines
    is already (or would be) absorbed by the current concentration of these gases
    and certainly by the much higher concentration of atmospheric water vapour. It
    is drawing a long bow to claim current tundra CH4 releases will cause humanity’s
    destruction.

    In a prior article last year, to add a further
    point to his on-going CAGW message, Julian encouraged readers to look at Venus
    in the evening sky and contemplate what our Earth could be under a “runaway
    greenhouse effect”; however it was Jupiter in the evening sky at the time
    and Venus was in the early morning sky! Beside misleading readers where
    Venus actually was, he failed to mention Venus’s surface 462 degrees C
    temperature is due to its atmospheric pressure of 92 times Earth’ s and not due
    to its 97% CO2. Should Earth’s atmosphere (with its 0.04% CO2) be the same
    pressure as Venus’s, Earth’s surface temperature would be close to 400 degrees
    C- even though Earth is some 40% further away from the Sun.

    Yours faithfully

    The Second letter responding to a letter in Saturday’s Canberra Times sent early this morning:

    Douglas Mackenzie commented on my letter of 21st
    August (Letters CT Times2 p.8), I invite him to reread it. In my letter I
    mentioned most (not all) of the energy available at the methane (CH4) absorption
    infrared (IR) line is already absorbed by the tiny current concentration of this
    gas and by the much higher concentration of atmospheric water vapour (being the
    strongest atmospheric “greenhouse” gas, water vapour has far broader IR
    absorption lines).

    Increasing the existing methane concentration due
    to thawing of Arctic tundra, will slightly increase absorption of the 7.5 to
    8 micron IR wavelength and contribute to global warming. However the extra
    energy absorption is not additive, but logarithmic (if its additive it would
    exceed 100% absorption). Further, “greenhouse’ gases warm the lower atmosphere
    due to absorption of some of Earth’s IR radiation before it radiates into space,
    not “from the heat arriving from the sun”.

    On this last point there are two further facts not
    mentioned in Julian Cribb’s 18/8 article. First, CH4 is half the average weight
    of our atmospheric gases, therefore a strong tendency to rise to higher
    altitudes. CH4 has another shorter (higher energy) IR absorption line at 3.2 to
    3.5 microns, well outside Earth’s IR radiation but inside the Sun’s radiation,
    in effect CH4 partially shades Earth’s surface from the Sun’s heat at that
    wavelength (a cooling effect). Secondly Julian did not mention CH4 molecules’
    short 7-year average presence in our atmosphere compared to CO2’s 100-year
    (according to the IPCC); this further reduces CH4’s long term “greenhouse”
    potency according to climate models.

    The Cassandra catastrophic climate change view as
    espoused in Julian Cribb’s recent articles is so 2007, it’s now becoming rather
    tiresome. Can we please move on.

    Yours faithfully

    Expect to hear more from the alarmists now they have a new gas to peddle their CAGW diatribe.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      John, you’re so right, calling it by its proper acronym. The name “climate change” is a furphy, designed to mislead. CAGW sceptics should call it for what it is.

      There is a new form of ten pin bowling we have in the CAGW debate. There are more than 10 pins, and each one differs in size, shape and colour. Instead of placing 10 pins carefully arranged, the bowling machine’s pinsetter places one or two randomly, and the task of players drawn from the sceptic ranks, is to knock these pins over, one by one. And they do. Then the pinsetter thinks for a bit, picks up another different pin or two, to be placed with its usual exquisite grace at the end of the bowling alley, and the process is repeated.

      Many pins are recycled through the course of the game, but there is a team of woolly-headed wombat warmists (some of whom have a day job as ‘science journalists’) who have a little workshop at the back of the pinsetter. Here they have carpenters tools and lathes, and lots of fast drying paint colours. That’s why some pins look about as smart as garden gnomes.

      This methane twaddle is yet another recycled garden gnome. A few others I can think of include:
      * complete melt of continental ice, with inexorable sea rise, 50 million climate refugees, Bangladesh gone . . .
      * 4 degrees C hotter – catastrophic unending droughts, famine, pestilence, water wars . . .
      * acid oceans, shell fish gone, food chain collapse . . .
      * ocean and wind currents permanently overturned, agriculture thrashed . .
      * carbon dioxide and all that dreadful fossil fuel, of course . . .
      * extreme weather; fires, floods, hurricanes . .extreme cold ? no, but that’s another indication of AGW . . .
      * species extinction – not just them polar bears . . .

      I think those happy carpenters need to work overtime, and create a few fresh garden gnomes for us.

  • DaveW says:

    This seems to be the same person as the head of Julian Cribb & Associates who provide services that “range from complete communication strategy and planning through to implementation. They include the preparation and delivery of media campaigns, media training for scientists, writing and editing of scientific and technical reports and other publications including books and feature articles about scientific issues, preparation of speeches and presentations, customer and public opinion research” (http://www.sciencealert.com.au/jca.html) and whose most recent book claims that we are all being poisoned by ‘chemicals’ (http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/australian-book-poisoned-planet-by-julian-cribb-reveals-the-chemicals-that-are-slowly-killing-us/story-fneuzlbd-1226935967227).
    Don, I think you owe us an apology for repeating the claim that he is a ‘science journalist’. I know that language is a living thing, meanings change, and ‘climate science’ has shifted the meaning of ‘science’, but no need to help with the debasement. You should have at least used scare quotes (which seem especially appropriate in his case).

  • Peter says:

    Sounds like a piece that could be referred to the Australian Press Council for inadequate balance like that piece in “The Australian” about eating kangaroos

  • os says:

    Julian Cribb did Honours in Greek at UWA in the late 1960’s – early 70’s and was a keen actor in the SGC and UWA Dramatic Societies. How he parlayed that into a career in science journalism is anybody’s guess. A testament to the value of the good old BA, or a testament to science’s incapacity to communicate?

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