Saturday, December 17, 2011

Andrew Revkin on methane, ctd

Revkin responded to my criticism in a comment exchange at Quark Soup:

Andy Revkin said...
I sent several emails to Semiletov and others in his group since the AGU presentation. Happy to post when and if there's input from them on the points made by other scientists gauging the long-term risk question. Witnessing a lot of emissions now is important information, and monitoring is essential in such regions. But drawing conclusions about overall risk from this is not possible unless setting those observations against both basic understanding of sub-sea permafrost response to ocean warming and what can be learned by looking back 8,000 years ago etc.
This is a reasonable explanation of why Semiletov et al are not quoted in the article. It is common and uncontroversial to run without an important source when you have made a good faith effort to contact them and haven't been able to.

What confuses me, still, is why he didn't just say that. "I tried to contact Semiletov and others from his group, but no one replied." In addition to being basic good journalism, such a sentence to frame what Revkin is doing in the piece a lot more clearly. If I were his editor, I might suggest a revision, something (preserving Revkin's editorial intent) along the lines of:

There was a story in the Independent last week that tried to get us riled up about the possibility of rapid methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). This story was ostensibly based on a recent expedition to the Shelf by Russian scientists, who were quoted in the article as finding "We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal."

While the Independent made this sound terrifying, they ran a very similar story in 2008, right down to the "intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels." Semiletov and his team have not returned emails, and Semiletov's AGU talk is not available online. So the actual results of the trip are not yet available. But there is some important context to the story that the Independent didn't provide:

* Permafrost scientists think that the methane emissions seen from the ESAS over the last few years can be explained by their permafrost models and are part of an 8,000 year process that is not directly linked to global warming.

* They think the bulk of the permafrost is safe for the next thousand years.

Both of these studies are based on modelling and the emissions of prior years, so it's possible Semiletov's team has found something that will challenge those models. Until he publishes his results, or at the very least, starts returning my emails, the state of the science today is still that a rapid, massive release of methane sufficient to accelerate global warming is thought to be unlikely.
That's how I would have written it, not that the highly accomplished Andrew Revkin (no sarc, he's done a lot of great climate writing) needs my imput.

Meanwhile, we need to hear from Semiletov and colleagues. Did anyone hear their talk?


  1. I posted a new reply on your other thread, too:

    I'm not a professional middleman. What I try to do is 1) question findings by seeking views from others publishing on important questions 2) put new observations (particularly ones that are unpublished and/or dramatic) in the context of what is established in the existing literature.

    Semiletov is finally in touch with me (he'd gone on vacation right after AGU) and you'll hear more on his work soon. He's very critical of Dmitrenko. This kind of back-and-forthing is the process of science in action. I try to avoid whiplash on the part of the public. Some news mediap are happy to press the "front page thought" however tentative a result.(Relevant book chapter: On Balance, Hype, Climate and the Media: )

    You're wrong about the AGU /JGR links being to separate papers. Colin Schultz's piece is the journal's summary of the Dmitrenko paper. Schultz works for the AGU. It says that right in the text.

    As for the timeliness of the paper, I circle back to the initial point. Semiletov's latest observations are just that, observations. It'll be quite awhile before models have to be adjusted to account for one summer's bubbling. has more on the basics:

  2. See for Semiletov's presentation.

  3. climatehawk1, December 17, 2:30 PM

    I’ve been looking for information this after reading the Semiletov quotes in the Independent article, and I’ve been seeing the link to the flip book most every where. Atop page 4 are quotes in which Semiletov expands slightly beyond what the Independent published but are sourced to “an associate of a U. S.-based documentary team”.

    Well and good, but passing off the flip book and 2nd hand quotes, as “Semiletov's presentation”, as you do here, and as I have seen done elsewhere on the net, is untrue and bogus.

    Semiletov was scheduled to give a talk on Friday the 9th at the AGU titled “First drilling in the Ust’ Lensky Rift Zone, Laptev Sea...” Natalia Shakhova had a poster at the Thursday mourning session titled “Ebullition-driven fluxes of methane from shallow hot spots suggest significant under-estimation of annual emission from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf”. The poster's abstract says “New data obtained in 2008-2010 ... could multiply previously reported annual emission from the entire ESAS.” Shakhova and Semilitov were 1st and 2nd authors of a December 2010 paper in Science on results from 2003-2009 that provided the 8 million ton yearly estimate in the Independent piece.


  4. Sorry, not intended to be "untrue and bogus." I was short on time and trying to be helpful--knew the owner here was looking for it. I took a quick look and was in some doubt about what to call it, but didn't want to just say "see [link]". So ... I figured others could determine its value or lack thereof.