‘Frozen Dirt’ and Methane … ‘We Cannot Go There’

Concerns about escape of CO2 and methane from Arctic permafrost revolve around whether, how much, and how fast emissions could be released. But a new Yale Forum video cautions that a warmer atmosphere poses real risks and, once started, such a release ‘will just go by itself.’

“Frozen dirt.”

Got it? If so, now you can better describe permafrost in those discussions around the dinner table. It’s any underground earth material that stays frozen for two or more consecutive years, Vladimir Romanovsky, Ph.D., of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, explains in a new “This is Not Cool” video produced by Peter Sinclair for The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

When it thaws, so do the microorganisms. With no oxygen, the microorganisms make methane, and with it they make carbon dioxide, Kevin Schaefer of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre explains.

The concern is that much of the carbon stored in permafrost — in frozen dirt — could be released into the carbon cycle, says scientist Charles Miller of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Arctic, Miller says, is being affected by warming faster and more significantly than models had predicted. Methane concentrations, and even CO2 concentrations, “that one might associate with flying near a large oil or natural gas production facility or even flying through the middle of a large city” can be observed from an airplane, he says. “They’re elevated that much. But when you look down at the surface, all you see is pristine wilderness, typically wetlands and rivers with sporadic forests and grassland.” Finding those concentrations so distant from those locations, Miller says, is “quite remarkable to me.”

It all comes down to how much of the carbon currently stored in the Arctic tundra will be released and over what period of time, Miller says. Will it be released over 100 or 150 years, or over a decade or two?

In the latter case, “the perturbation would be significantly larger,” Miller cautions.

“We have at least theoretical control” over human emissions of greenhouse gases, Romanovsky says. “And because of that, we feel that we can do something to change it if it’s necessary.

“In the case of thawing permafrost, there’s no way to control it or stop it. It just will go by itself.”

Nobel Laureate and former Energy Secretary Steven Chu cautions of “a reasonable possibility” that once started, emissions from Arctic permafrost could “even dwarf” human-caused GHG emissions. Chu expresses concerns in particular about global temperature increases of 4, 5, or 6 degrees C. “At that point, it’s completely out of our control … the release of the trapped carbon material in the Tundra just runs away …. We cannot go there.”

But might we? Anton Vaks, of Oxford University and colleagues have published a paper cautioning that the “tipping point” for permafrost melting may be quite lower, more like 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial global temperatures. “This is probably the tipping point,” Vaks cautions. (Since the late 1800s, global temperatures have increased about .8 degrees C.)

But “it’s not an all or nothing” situation, scientist Ben Abbott of the University of Alaska Fairbanks says. Limiting CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions will lead to lower releases of greenhouse gases from the permafrost, he says.

In that case, one can hope that it will be little more than “frozen dirt” in the first place. But it’s a big “If.”

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13 Responses to ‘Frozen Dirt’ and Methane … ‘We Cannot Go There’

  1. Martin Lack says:

    I am completely indebted to Professor Guy McPherson (University of Arizona) for alerting me to the fact that, as was recently reported by Joe Romm on the Think Progress website, global methane emissions (as CO2e) from permafrost are already equivalent to global anthropogenic emissions and will quadruple within the next 10-15 years. This is not good news.

    • J Doug Swallow says:

      There seem to be so many things for Martin Lack to tremble about and now methane appears to be the latest “Boogey Man” for him to hide under the bed to try to escape from. I recall that Karl Popper said this: “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

      This information should put Methane in a different light for Martin as to its origin:
      “Titan’s Mysterious Methane Comes From Inside, Not The Surface
      “We have determined that Titan’s methane is not of biological origin, so it must be replenished by geologic processes on Titan, perhaps venting from a supply in the interior that could have been trapped there as the moon formed,” said Dr. Hasso Niemann of Goddard, principal investigator for the GCMS and lead author of a paper on this research to appear in Nature on Dec. 8. An advance online publication will be available on Nov. 30 at

      It was thought that all hydrocarbons were of an organic nature but this information proves that to be a false belief.
      “Ocean Floor Methane Gas Hydrate Exploration
       Introduction: Over the last decade, large deposits of methane hydrates have been identified along the world continental margins. Frozen mixtures of hydrocarbon gas (mostly methane) and water occur over large areas of the ocean floor and vastly exceed other carbon-energy reservoirs. With a maximum content of 164 m3 of methane and 0.8 m3 of water at standard temperature and pressure per cubic meter of hydrate and an estimated range of 26 to 139 X 1015 m3 globally, this is a significant new energy source. The content of methane in hydrates is variable and is controlled by geothermal gradients and biological methane production. International research has begun, with a primary goal of obtaining the methane in these hydrates as an energy source.
      This requires a broad range of scientific efforts to address the methane hydrate presence, develop mining strategies, and predict the impact on the environment and platform stability. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has developed strong research topics regarding methane hydrates over the last 30 years. NRL has unique field and laboratory expertise that couples physical, chemical, and biological parameters to address methane hydrate distribution, formation, and stability. Recent, current, and planned field work is active on the Texas-Louisiana Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, Nankai Trough off the eastern coast of Japan, Blake Ridge in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean, the Cascadia Margin in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, and the Haakon-Mosby Mud Volcano (MV) in the Norwegian-Greenland Sea (Fig. 7).”


  2. Nick says:

    This frozen “dirt”, by which I presume the author meant soil, has been freezing and thawing for millions of years. It is natural for it to do so.
    I suspect this is simply Global Warming taxation rearing it’s ugly head again, sorry that will not work when all the other planets in our solar system are warming up at the same time.
    Yes, we must try to be cleaner in how we use energy, however the cleanest form of energy has been hidden from us since 1940.
    It is called FREE ENERGY.

  3. J Doug Swallow says:

    I’m sure that if you have ever seen the Trans Alaska Pipe line you noticed the Vertical support members on the pipeline where it is above the ground. “Planners realized that the pipeline couldn’t be buried in the permafrost […] To avoid these complications, the engineers made an important decision: About one-half of the pipeline (about 700 kilometers) would have to be built above ground. They supported the pipe with refrigeration posts that are topped with aluminum radiators. The posts conduct heat away from the soil.”

    This means that the arctic is not the only place that there is permafrost as seems to be the message presented in this piece:
    “PERMAFROST Any land or solid area below ground level that remains frozen (below zero degrees Celsius) for longer than two years.”
    I know from my experiences in the arctic that it can, on occasion, get very warm but it does not last for long, as the chart below shows. If you look at the mean temperature you will see that it is not warming up like you want to believe, but then what do these people know that keep and compile these records?
    Past Monthly Weather Data for Kaktovik, AK [Alaska] (“Barter Island (dew)”) : JANUARY, 1947 – 2012
    All months for this station: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugustSeptemberOctoberNovemberDecember

    “The National Weather Service, the official weather reporting and recording agency of the federal government reported 100 degrees F (37.8 degrees C) at Fort Yukon on June 27, 1915, as the highest recorded temperature in the state. The lowest recorded temperature was minus 80 degrees F (-62.8 degrees C) at Prospect Creek, about 25 miles southeast of Bettles, on January 23, 1971.”

    You could find this interesting piece of information for when Martin Lack wants to cry about the raising sea levels from this site.
    “From 1865 to 1868 William Healy Dall’s Western Union Telegraph Expedition explored Alaska’s Interior and Yukon River. Dall’s survey produced the map on the left. Note the dramatic physiographic changes since that time on the current map of the same area on the right. Dall noted the presence of a shallow shoal from Stuart Island to Capt Romanzof and termed this feature a “3 fathom curve.” Today, much of this bathymetric contour, presumably Yukon River sediment outwash, is completely above tidewater.”

  4. J Doug Swallow says:

    I watched this inspiring video and was very impressed with Charles Miller who has the astounding ability to see [01:26] and smell methane and carbon dioxide, both of which are odorless and invisible. This special ability must come from being employed by NASA. The rest of the conjecture was, as usual, not backed up with any facts and in any endeavor, facts are important.

    What follows are historically documented occurrences that has ample evidence to support, if one wants to have facts instead of conjecture to give one the true perspective on what is really happening. Is there such a thing as natural variability, such as what caused the MWP and the LIA with out having to have everything, climate wise, tied to a trace gas, CO2?
    “The Arctic Ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot, according to a report to the Commerce Department yesterday from Consul Ifft, at Bergen, Norway. Reports from fishermen, seal hunters and explorers, he declared, all point to a radical change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone.”

    “The source report of the Washington Post article on changes in the arctic has been found in the Monthly Weather Review for November 1922. It is much more detailed than the Washington Post (Associated Press) article. It seems the AP heaviliy relied on the report from Norway Consulate George Ifft, which is shown below. See the original MWR article below and click the newsprint copy for a complete artice or see the link to the original PDF below:”
    This was a real warm period that lasted a fairly long time and it is historically documented that it did happen. I’m sure that there was some melting of permafrost taking place but it did not bring about the end of the world as some are now wanting people to believe will happen over humanity using fossil fuels to advance their position in life and remove the burdens that humanity struggled under not all that many years ago.

    “The Norse arrived in Greenland 1,000 years ago and became very well established,” says Schweger, describing the Viking farms and settlements that crowded the southeast and southwest coasts of Greenland for almost 400 years.
    “The Greenland settlements were the most distant of all European medieval sites in the world,” said Schweger. “Then the Norse disappear, and the question has always been: what happened?”

    Cross-sections of the GUS soil show the Vikings began their settlement by burning off Birch brush to form a meadow. Over the next 300 to 400 years, the meadow soil steadily improved its nutritional qualities, showing that the Greenland Vikings weren’t poor farmers, as McGovern and others have suggested. “At GUS, the amount of organic matter and the quality of soil increased and sustained farming for 400 years,” says Schweger. “If they were poor farmers, then virtually all the farming in North America is poor farming.”

    I imagine that the Danes would like to start raising cows and sheep on Greenland again and soon. I do believe that would be a better condition than having the ice sheet back down to the Buffalo Ridge in Minnesota or covering Manhattan; but, for some cold is better than warm while for most life forms that is not the case or 80% of these would not exist in the tropical regions on earth.

    • Martin Lack says:

      Greenland was not given its name because it was covered in significantly less ice twelve hundred years ago. It has been like it is now for most of the last 1 million years. This is climate denial Room 101.

      • J Doug Swallow says:

        What a wonderful revelation, Martin. Anyone who has studied history knows that Eric the Red named it that to try to get people to want to go to what he called Greenland; but, the fact remains that the climate on this island was conducive to European style agriculture for close to four hundred years and that is not the case today, or didn’t John Cook mention that to you?

        The Vikings did not confine themselves to Greenland, as this research by a 125 year old organization shows.
        As even you will see, Martin, there is even more evidence for you to dance around about the Vikings and their habitation of the north 1,000 years ago:
        “Evidence of Viking Outpost Found in Canada
        Sharpeners may be smoking guns in quest for New World’s second Viking site.
        For the past 50 years—since the discovery of a thousand-year-old Viking way station in Newfoundland—archaeologists and amateur historians have combed North America’s east coast searching for traces of Viking visitors.

        Archaeologists have long known that Viking seafarers set sail for the New World around A.D. 1000. A popular Icelandic saga tells of the exploits of Leif Eriksson, a Viking chieftain from Greenland who sailed westward to seek his fortune. According to the saga, Eriksson stopped long enough on Baffin Island to walk the coast—named Helluland, an Old Norse word meaning “stone-slab land”—before heading south to a place he called Vinland.”

  5. Eric Luttmann says:

    While this report focuses on the endless spiral of carbon emissions, once we reach the tipping point, additional facets to this occurrence include the economic and infrastructural consequences that Alaskan and northern Canadian residents fear. Most of the bridges, roads, and towns sit upon frozen soil that is within a degree of melting. Doug Goering, Dean of College of Engineering & Mines at University of Alaska Fairbanks, states, “Much of Alaska’s infrastructure was designed in the 60’s, 70’s before any realization of global change had occurred in the engineering psyche” (Doug Goering, Mechanical Engineer at University of Alaska – Fairbanks).

    Engineers are rethinking how roads are designed and how to renovate buildings. Subsurface piping implanted in the pavement removes additional heat in the winter so that the thermafrost stays frozen in the following summer. One such technology includes pipes that hold anhydrous ammonia, a traditional refrigerant. When the ammonia condenses into a liquid form during the winter, it lays on the bottom of the piping next to the permafrost. Once the ammonia becomes a bit warmer than the boiling point, the ammonia returns to gas phase and subsequently warms the permafrost. This creates an ongoing cycle of evaporation and condensation. Additional techniques include painting highways white in order to reflect sunlight which cools the road surface and subsequent ground underneath.

    While addressing global warming is a serious concern for humanity, citizens of these regions may put priority on addressing the safety and stability of their towns and infrastructure first. With the possibility of billions of dollars of damage, it seems engineering techniques of cooling will be the answer. But how long will that continue to work until the thawing is out of control?


    • J Doug Swallow says:

      These are no knowledgeable people in Alaska fearing any tipping point. The oil companies have been operating on the North Slope since the 1960s dealing successfully with permafrost. They learned certain things about it from the Soviets/Russians and are carrying on operations there and the pipeline to Valdez is still operating and not falling into the melting permafrost as you seem to imply. There has always been problems with building and maintaining highways where there is permafrost, such as one witnesses on the Parks Highway going up the hill near Ester, Alaska, and how soon new highways become up and down rides, such as the Alaska Highway in the Yukon. I would guess that your person of reference, Doug Goering, has had experience with the Universities’ test drift near Fox. “The original Permafrost Tunnel has facilitated research from engineering to paleoclimatology and geocryology. This research will hopefully continue in the expanded tunnel along with new research related to permafrost. […]
      The current tunnel was luckily constructed
      in an area containing numerous permafrost features,
      including ice wedge complexes, varying sizes of
      segregated ice, thermokarst-cave ice, frozen silt and
      gravel, and organic materials. The vicinity also provides
      an unprecedented continuous hundred-meter exposure of
      permafrost extending in time from the present to
      approximately 50,000 years in the past. Co-locating the
      new tunnel adjacent to the old allows for confidence in
      meeting the research needs in the four main research

      This is a noted scientist associated with the University of AK, Fairbanks, and he doesn’t seem to share the alarmist views being put forth with no facts to substantiate them. Syun-Ichi Akasofu is the Founding Director of the International Arctic Research Center. Syun-Ichi Akasofu received his PhD in 1961 and became professor of geophysics three years later. He has published more than 550 professional journal articles, and has authored/coauthored 10 books. In 1981 Syun-Ichi Akasofu was named one of the “1000 Most Cited Scientists”; therefore, it is fair to regard him as an expert in this field.

      This is his take on the permafrost question:
      “Number two, they say, permafrost is melting, and houses are collapsing. What happens is that, when permafrost is in the area, housing is cheap and the land is cheap. When people build a house directly over the permafrost, and then warm the house in the Wintertime, and the ice underneath melts and the house collapses, that’s a man-made effect! It has nothing to do with the greenhouse effect! There are so many mistakes like that.”

      Please note that 24 percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere has permafrost underneath it; so, permafrost makes up 9 million square miles. Large expanses of permafrost occur in Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and other higher mountain regions and these are all places where I have been. More than 80% of Alaska’s land surface has permafrost underneath it. The Rocky Mountains, in the western U.S., also have permafrost and they are far removed from the arctic.

      I lived in Alaska for 24 years, 14 years of that span of time was in the arctic; therefore, know something about permafrost and what effects it and there have always been naturally occurring occasions where it is disturbed and melts.
      Arctic treeline advance not as fast as previously believed
      Carey Restino | The Arctic Sounder | Mar 18, 2012
      Forget global warming, Alaska is headed for an ice age
      Alex DeMarban | Dec 23, 2012
      In the first decade since 2000, the 49th state cooled 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit.


      • Eric Luttmann says:

        It’s great to have perspective from an Alaskan resident and one extremely familiar with the Arctic. I was simply offering an additional issue related to the melting of permafrost that is prevalent in the news. However, from your point of view, it appears this issue of infrastructure resting on permafrost is blown out of proportion, especially since Alaska cooled substantially in the recent decade.

        While Alaska has been concerned with researching how to adapt to permafrost melting for decades, the rest of the world is now becoming engaged due to reports on global warming and carbon emissions. To address building infrastructure upon melting permafrost, research facilities such as the Permafrost Tunnel near Fox will become more prominent across the northern hemisphere. These types of facilities will provide countries with the information and knowledge base to react to widespread melting permafrost if it does occur.
        This growing interest into the issue of melting permafrost is apparent in the fact that “The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns against the effects of global warming on permafrost, and recommends conducting more research into understanding the effects” (GRID Ardenal). http://www.grida.no/publications/et/at/page/2545.aspx .

        The UN believes this “Damage to critical infrastructure, such as buildings and roads, will incur significant social and economic costs” (Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost). One of their policy recommendations includes encouraging individual countries such as Russia, Canada, China and the US to start “increasing funding, standardizing the measurements and expanding coverage” to monitor permafrost degradation. Another poses a plan for adaptation in which the countries evaluate “potential risks, damage and costs of permafrost degradation to critical infrastructure”. (http://www.unep.org/pdf/permafrost.pdf)

        Although you may discount the tipping point, international organizations are planning for its occurrence. In response to only a handful of reports that evaluate economic impacts of permafrost melting, future focus and funding will increase especially since the UN is encouraging it to become policy. In the future, permafrost research tunnels such as the one near Fox, Alaska and that of Yakutsk Permafrost Institute will lead to better adaptations to infrastructure built upon melting permafrost.

        • J Doug Swallow says:

          Eric Luttmann says “However, from your point of view, it appears this issue of infrastructure resting on permafrost is blown out of proportion, especially since Alaska cooled substantially in the recent decade.” and also “To address building infrastructure upon melting permafrost, research facilities such as the Permafrost Tunnel near Fox will become more prominent across the northern hemisphere.”

          That is not my point of view at all. If one does not take into consideration what building on permafrost can do to what ever is situated on it, then there will be problems and this was something that the very astute engineers took into consideration before they felt that they could safely build the Trans Alaska Pipe Line. In most permafrost areas buildings are elevated above the ground on pilings to keep the ground frozen or there will be problems and it is from a man made structure causing thawing and has nothing to do with any climate change issue.
          I know from personal experience that the AK DOT tried several experiments to hold the highway leaving Ester. One was to place wood chips down and then put the earth fill over that to insulate the permafrost. I’m not sure how that worked out since I have not been back to Fairbanks in years.

          One would hope that during the period of time since the pipe line was built that more advances could be arrived at other than having a constant debate over the effects of a trace gas, CO2, that only makes up .O37-9% of the total atmosphere and is one and one-half times heavier than that atmosphere. There are far more important issues to be concerned with than this unproven hypotheses of anthropogenic global warming that is not, at present, taking place.

          I have several friends that mined for placer gold in permafrost and they on their own, and with help from the U of A, Fairbanks, learned how to deal with underground permafrost. They only opened the sealed mine up in the winter and once it began to warm up in the spring, they sealed it off again and did their “clean up” on what they had taken out of the frozen ground at bed rock and claimed their “free gold”, if there was any to be had. The frozen gravel acted like solid rock and there was no danger of the drift or stope coming in, if it was kept frozen.