Methane and the International Criminal Court

By June 8, 2019Environment, Science

To explain this properly, we need to do a bit of geology. The Permian Period is an interval of geological time which began 298.9 million years ago and ended 251.9 million years ago, so it lasted 47 million years1. At about the end of that time interval, occurred the greatest mass extinction event in the history of the planet. This extinction event wiped out an estimated 96% of all marine species, and an estimated 70% of all terrestrial species.2

For many years, scientists have been trying to understand the timing and duration of this extinction event to try to work out what caused it. To work out the time frame, Uranium-Lead dating of tiny zircon crystals, found in layers of volcanic ash, has shown that the extinction event occurred perhaps slightly before (about 100,000 years) the end of the Permian, at about 252 million years ago. Scientists also analyse the many fossils and microfossils entombed in the rock, to try to work out when extinctions occurred and at what rate they happened. They also analyse Oxygen isotopes which can tell them something about the temperature of the ocean, while analysing Carbon isotopes can tell them something about the state of the Carbon cycle. The carbon cycle is the series of processes by which carbon is exchanged between living organisms, soils, rocks, the oceans, rivers and lakes, and the atmosphere.

Recent work in Guangxi, in southern China, in a successions of rocks which were laid down around this time, was expected to show a gradual decline in the diversity of fossils, accompanied by changes in ocean temperature and chemistry. However, they did not. They did find that the ocean temperature in this part of the world rose from 30 degrees C to 35 degrees C a few tens of thousands of years before the main extinction event. The largest temperature rise occurred after most species had died out2. They also found that something happened to the Carbon cycle

This most favoured hypothesis is that this extinction event was caused by the massive volcanic eruptions of more than four million cubic kilometres of lava in Siberia, which occurred over an interval of about 400,000 years in the leadup to the extinction. These eruptions would have most likely released huge amounts of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, heating it and acidifying the ocean. However, the extinction was not a gradual event and it seems that the volcanism had little immediate effect for most of its duration. Indeed, the extinction was relatively abrupt and it is suspected that the environment reached a tipping point, and it was this which initiated the extinction.2

A recent paper by Uwe Brand and colleagues has suggested that a sudden release of methane (CH4) may be the tipping point in this extinction event. This has been determined by a shift in the carbon isotope content (a decrease in the relative abundance of the isotope Carbon 13 [i.e. 13C]) in sediments deposited at the time. While the emissions of large amounts of CO2 from the Siberian eruptions may have started the global heating, and it was this which led to the huge release of CH4, the latter was the ultimate cause for the extinction.3

Some months ago, I read a paper by Will Steffen (of the Australian National University) and colleagues, and wrote an essay about it. The paper was about feedbacks, both negative and positive, which may occur if the global average temperature rises by 2 degrees C or more. It warned that if some of the positive feedbacks come into play then we could see runaway temperature rises, leading to what they termed a ‘hothouse earth’4,5. One of the positive feedbacks was the release of methane from the melting of permafrost in the Arctic and the decomposition of methane hydrate* on the ocean floor. At the time, there was little indication that this was currently happening.

The concentration of CH4 in the atmosphere increased slowly in the years up to 2014, averaging less than one part per billion per annum, but in 2014 and 2015 this increased dramatically up to 10 parts per billion6. This seems to be at odds with what was suspected to be the rate at which much methane would be released, which was thought likely to be over centuries rather than in a decade or so. A recent study has shown that waterlogged permafrost can produce significant amounts of CH4 within a few years7,8. In some parts of the Arctic, there has been some thawing of the permafrost and this thawing forms small lakes, called thermokarst lakes. These lakes are actually forming their own local feedback cycles and they increase the rate of thawing of the permafrost underneath themselves, and thereby the rate of release of CH4 and CO2. This has not been accounted for in climate projections.9

Shakhova and colleagues published a study in 2010 warning how the rapid warming of the Arctic could lead to the release of CH4 from methane hydrates on a massive and catastrophic scale8,10. However, this suggested catastrophic release has been debated by Ruppel & Kessler, who in part based their argument on the absence of data showing any increases in atmospheric CH4 at the surface of the Arctic8,11. Most of the sensors used to measure atmospheric CH4 are land based, and Bendell8 wonders if that may be why the recent unusual increases in atmospheric CH4 (see above) cannot be explained from these land based data sets. He suggests that a better way to ascertain how much CH4 is coming from the oceans is to measure upper atmosphere CH48. Recent work by scientists on Arctic News has shown that CH4 levels at mid-altitudes were at around 1865 parts per billion in early 2018, which represents an increase of 35 parts per billion (i.e. 1.8%) over the previous year8,12. Surface measurements over the same time interval only increased about 15 parts per billion8. This indicates that the oceans are already starting to release CH4 into the atmosphere. This may not be a catastrophe yet, but it might be the beginning of one. This is because a calculation of the effect of methane hydrate on global heating may be as much as 1.1 degrees C with the next decade. Coupled with all other feedbacks such as the decline of snow and ice (decreasing albedo), increased water vapour in a warmer atmosphere, and others, it is possible that in the next decade we could already see the beginning of runaway climate change, with estimates as high as another 8 degrees C increase beyond the current 1.0 degree above pre-industrial levels12. The Paris Accord’s target of a rise of 1.5 degrees C, now looks to be a forlorn hope.

As I have said before, we have known there was a threat to the planet and to humans for three decades, ever since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report came out in 199013. The malevolence of the denialism industry and its paid mouthpieces in the political class need to pay, not for their inaction, but for their active obstruction of action. If these prognostications above come to pass, millions of humans are likely to die and many more become climate refugees. These deniers may have doomed those who survive this catastrophe to live on a planet large parts of which may be uninhabitable. This is a crime against humanity far worse than those committed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot or any other rabid psychopath. Deniers need to be referred to the International Criminal Court, if indeed there is still one by the time the climate gets bad enough for people to realise what has been done to them.

*Methane hydrate, also called methane clathrate, is essentially the trapping of molecules of methane (from decaying organic matter) within a crystal structure of water, forming a solid similar to ice. Its chemical formula is (CH4)4(H20)23, and it has been discovered in huge quantities within sediments on the ocean floor where temperatures are low (about 2 degrees C). Methane hydrate looks like ice, but can be made to burn, with a flame above and water dripping off below4. It is very odd stuff. If the ocean heats up much more it will become unstable and release its methane into the ocean and into the atmosphere.


  3. Brand, U., Blamey, N., Garbelli, C., Posenato, R., Angiolini, L., Azmy, K, Farabegoli, E. & Came, R., 2016. Methane Hydrate: Killer cause of Earth’s greatest mass extinction. Palaeoworld 25, 496-507.
  5. Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T.M., Folke, C., Liverman, D., Summerhayes, C.P., Barnosky, A.D., Cornell, S.E., Crucifix, M., Donges, J.F., Fetzer, I., Lade, S.J., Scheffer, M., Winkelmann, R. & Schellnhuber, H.J., 2018. Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  6. Saunois et al., 2016. The global methane budget 2000–2012. Earth System Scientific Data 8, 697–751.
  7. Knoblauch, C., Beer, C., Liebner, S., Grigoriev, M.N. & Pfeiffer, E.-M., 2018. Methane production as key to the Greenhouse Gas Budget of thawing permafrost. Nature Climate Change, 19 March.
  10. Shakhova et. al., 2010. Extensive methane venting to the atmosphere from sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Science 327, 1246-1250
  11. Ruppel, C.D. & Kessler, J.D., 2017. The interaction of climate change and methane hydrates. Review of Geophysics 55 (1),126-168.


  • Warren says:

    You just ruined my weekend. But that’s nothing compared to what may be down the track for my kids.

    • admin says:


      That is what angers me so much. People like Morrison have kids, but would sacrifice their futures just to keep the donations flowing to the Liberal Party, so they can maintain power. It is criminal.

  • Mark Dougall says:

    Thank you for an excellent, although terrifying, analysis. I have always enjoyed SF (Science or Speculative Fiction, depending on your age really), that is until it becomes too real. Two books that keep intruding into my thoughts as the years pass are Stark (Ben Elton,1999) and Swarm (Frank Schatzing, 2004). The former seems to almost be prophetic in it’s description of a sad, pathetic, becoming apocalyptic, future, which is now the present in so many ways. The latter is, in some respects, a much more frightening book, even though there are significant elements in it that are obviously extremely unlikely. This includes a highly intelligent species that lives in the ocean deeps that has always ignored the surface. That is until a stupid species from above starts seriously intruding into, and damaging, their natural habitat. The reason it is so frightening is because the major weapon that this species uses to erase humanity from the planet is methane hydrate release. The big difference between fantasy and reality is that in the real world we do not require a nemesis to bring about our destruction. We are more than capable of doing it on our own. We are so stupid.

    • admin says:

      Like most people, I assumed that the the IPCC reports would accurately reflect what was the likely future. However, not are they only a little conservative, they do not take into account some of the feedback cycles. This is exacerbated by their unpredictability and in the case of methane, they are hamstrung by the lack of knowledge of their extent and volume. We know that they exist in the Arctic Ocean, and it is the Arctic which is heating up the fastest. The most depressing paper I have read on the subject of climate change is the one listed as No. 8 in the list of references.

  • Russell says:

    One reason, so I’ve read, for the rather restrained and purely objective nature of the ICCP reports and other atmospheric or oceanic studies, has been that to create alarm could be counterproductive. By being sure to predict with some moderation, the changes in Earth’s climate and ecological webs into the future, major scientific research cohorts encourage the lay reader to become alert to the need for serious action but not over-alarmed and even despondent about the value of more mitigation of CO2 and CH4.
    in retrospect, since about the time of the Paris Accords, I feel all key scientists should have been loud about this issue wherever they spoke in a media or public forums across the planet. Some have been – James Hanson was a very vocal activist by 2000, to his huge credit. Still, as Admin said, the word on CO2 reaching beyond critical 400ppm (- hence likelihood of a full 2degrees plus rise) was there for all politicians to see for a minimum of two decades. The corporate bondage and bloody-mindedness of Abbott and Trump types demand a firm solution. And in what Peter Fleming calls the late capitalist, fag-end “wreckage economies” of the West, a sort of business-as-usual orgy continues inside the bubble of the super-wealthy. This is partly why ordinary people just don’t have information to grasp the meaning of figures like 400ppm and 6 or 8 degrees. For me, Trump and many other A1 plutocrats must be eradicated now, from Earth’s surface. It’s well overdue for the Koch brothers, two of the foulest of our species. Then we may – just – get real progress.

    • admin says:

      Yeah, I realise why they did it, and it is also the nature of science. I have been involved in several multidisciplinary efforts and they always seem to end up being towards the conservative end of the spectrum of possibilities. However, if this stuff about methane is confirmed, then we are in deep, deep shit and possibly looking at the collapse of civilisation. I hope like hell these predictions are way off beam, but I suspect they are not. If the temperature gets to 2 or 3 degrees, I am going to start a business in the design and sale of guillotines to be used on the deniers.

  • Mark Dougall says:

    I have been contemplating your piece and the attachments. Something that is niggling at me since I read it is the idea that the deniers and obstructers are committing “crimes against humanity”.

    It made me reflect on one of the most joyous moments of my life. It was when I watched a herd of more than fifty elephants at a water hole in Etosha National Park in Namibia last year. They played and rolled and squirted each other. They had fun. They cared tenderly for the very small calves but at the same time allowed the babies to also enjoy the experience. They shared their space. They took their turn. Then they left so the giraffes, the oryx, the ostriches, and others could have a go. They were not selfish.

    They showed a level of pure happiness and contentment at just being alive that it made me cry with joy and sadness at the same time. The joy was that I was seeing such a marvelous thing. The sadness was that these intelligent, wonderful beings will, like so many others, if not all, disappear because of our insatiable greed, selfishness and narcissism.

    It is not just climate change that is the problem. The problem really is us and how we have squandered and abused the beauty of our world. Humanity itself should be on trial. For crimes against life on this planet.

    • admin says:

      I could not agree more. As Einstein is erroneously reputed to have said. ‘Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, but he wasn’t sure about the former’. Whoever said it was pretty close to the mark. The human race as a whole is a lot like Tony Abbott: Narcissistic, unable to grasp any but the simplest concepts, largely unaware of what is happening around him, and uncomprehending of the consequences of his actions. That eventually led to his demise and I expect it may lead to ours.

    • admin says:

      I was out in the bush at the trig station in western Queensland when along the cliff line at my eye-hight soared a wedge-tailed eagle. As he glided past me he turned his head and looked at me disdainfully. At closest approach, he would have only been about four metres away. I felt like an interloper in his domain. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

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