Climate Science

Slow Roast

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Science  08 Jan 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5962, pp. 127
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5962.127-d
CREDIT: USGS

Of all the wildcards in the climate system, one of the most potentially important is oceanic methane hydrates. Methane hydrates are frozen associations of methane and water found worldwide in marine sediments within a field of stability that extends from near the sediment surface down several hundred meters. Huge quantities of methane are thought to exist in these hydrates, and that is what makes them such a concern to climate scientists—as we warm the world by burning fossil fuels, the ocean eventually may warm enough to destabilize the hydrates and add methane (a potent greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere. Substantial release of this stored methane could accelerate the rate and amount of global warming considerably above current estimates. Sadly, we still understand little about this possibility. Archer et al. present initial calculations of the amount of methane contained in the hydrates, as well as estimates of how much might be released in various anthropogenic global warming scenarios. Their calculations show that humankind does have the capacity to cause large methane releases from the sea floor, and correspondingly great additional warming, and that the impact of such release is likely to occur over millennia rather than abruptly over the next century, making the issue a long-term danger rather than an immediate one.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106, 20596 (2009).

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