When the Permafrost Thaws…

Ice and snow cover the Otonabee River in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In my upcoming novel “Gaia’s Revolution,” one of the protagonists, Damien Vogel, contemplates in 2022 a key event from 2020 that only a few seem to take seriously:

In Siberia in June 2020, record heat of thirty degrees Centigrade, over the average of 11 degrees, collapsed permafrost and caused oil tanks in Norilsk to rupture. Over twenty thousand tonnes of diesel spilled into the Pyasina lake and river system. Damien remembers looking at the veins of red on satellite images from space. That disaster is just the beginning of what the ‘sleeping bear’ of methane hydrates promise to unleash when the permafrost reaches a critical thaw and those hydrates awaken. Melting permafrost is a quiet sleeper in the climate change procession, he considers. At a microscopic level, in the chemistry of the water and in the change in the atmosphere, a time bomb is ticking.

A decade later, Damien’s twin brother, Eric, notes that:

“Back in the ‘20s scientists started noticing major permafrost melt on the Siberian Shelf,” Eric goes on. “The melting released hydrates, which set the oil and gas companies frothing at the mouth with joy and the climate scientists spinning in a panic because of what they knew it meant for the planet. It was the harbinger of the largest methane ‘burp’ ever.”

Eric then adds:

“Permafrost thaw kicked us into this devastating global warming, Dame, and everyone—even the climate modellers—ignored it, because they didn’t have enough data. Gott verdammt! They’re all still asleep, Dame!”

In his book The Treeline, Ben Rawlence writes about the ongoing extinction of indigenous peoples in the north as the treeline migrates northward into tundra and the permafrost and sea ice change and go extinct themselves.

Ice fragments on the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Methane & The Clathrate Gun Hypothesis 

Because methane is present in much smaller concentrations many scientists have mistakenly deemed it as important as carbon dioxide in the climate change equation; however, it is becoming obvious that methane poses a real and largely unacknowledged danger. Methane is twenty times more efficient in trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Permafrost—which is currently melting rapidly in the north—contains almost twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. In the rapidly warming Arctic (warming twice as fast as the globe as a whole), the upper layers of this frozen soil are thawing, allowing deposited organic material to decompose and release methane.


The clathrate gun hypothesis is the notion that sea temperature rises (and/or drops in sea levels) may trigger a catastrophic positive feedback on climate:  warming would cause a sudden release of methane from methane clathrate (hydrate) compounds buried in seabeds, in the permafrost, and under ice sheets.

Something of this nature has already occurred in Siberia in 2020. In his book The Treeline Ben Rawlence reports the following warning by Dutch scientist Dr. Ko van Huissteden, a leading authority on permafrost:

“It is hard to measure methane release … [but] some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane ‘burp’ of 500-5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.” (Wadhams, 2015)

Creation of gas hydrates requires high pressure; water; gas—mainly methane—and low temperatures. Three environments considered suitable for this process to occur include: sub-seabed along the world’s continental margins; permafrost areas on land and off shore; and a process for storing methane hydrates: ice sheets. As long as the climate is cold and the ice sheet stable, the gas hydrate zone remains stable. As the ice sheets melt, the pressure on the ground decreases; hydrates destabilize and release methane into rising seawater and finally into the atmosphere.

A recent study in Science revealed that hundreds of massive, kilometer-wide craters on the ocean floor in the Arctic were formed by substantial methane expulsions. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, temperatures would rise exponentially. Once started, this runaway process could be as irreversible as the firing of a gun—and on a time scale less than a human lifetime.

The sudden release of large amounts of natural warming gas from methane clathrate deposits in runaway climate change could be a cause of past, future, and present climate changes.

Latest research on the Greenland ice sheet and elsewhere throughout the Arctic has revealed major methane discharges in Arctic lakes in areas of permafrost thaw. Scientists are exploring areas where methane is bubbling to the surface and releasing to the atmosphere.

If human emissions continue at their current rate, rapidly changing ocean currents and retreating ice sheets may uncork methane from under ice caps, ocean sediments and Arctic permafrost, causing a jump in radiative forcing. Even if rapid ice sheet disintegration were to scatter large amounts of ice into the oceans, the net cooling effect would be strongly countered and likely overwhelmed. The areas that did cool would likely trigger severe weather outbreaks.

As I write, we are pumping out CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate 10 times faster than at any point in the past 66 m years, with the resulting sea level rises, extreme weather events, heat waves, droughts, unseasonal storms, and stress on biodiversity around the globe.  Research published in the journal Nature Geoscience demonstrates that “the world has entered ‘uncharted territory’ and that the consequences for life on land and in the oceans may be more severe than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs,” writes Damian Carrington of The Guardian.

In an interview with Guardian reporter John Abraham, Woods Hole expert Robert Max Holmes, exhorted:

It’s essential that policymakers begin to seriously consider the possibility of a substantial permafrost carbon feedback to global warming. If they don’t, I suspect that down the road we’ll all be looking at the 2°C threshold in our rear-view mirror.

Ice break up on the Otonabee River in early spring, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)


Hansen, James and Sato, Makiko; Update of Greenland ice sheet mass loss: Exponential?; (26 December 2012).

Adams, J., M.A. Maslin and E. Thomas Sudden climate transitions during the Quaternary; Progress in Physical Geography, 23, 1, 1-36 (1999)

Andreassen et al. 2017. “Massive blow-out craters formed by hydrate-controlled methane expulsion from the Arctic seafloor,” Sciencescience.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi … 1126/science.aal4500

Carrington, Damian. 2016. “Carbon emission release rate ‘unprecedented’ in past 66 m years.” The Guardian, March 21, 2016.

Hansen, James and Sato, Makiko. 2012. Update of Greenland ice sheet mass loss: Exponential?; (26 December 2012).

Portnov et al. 2016. Ice-sheet-driven methane storage and release in the ArcticNature Communications 7

Rawlence, Ben. 2022. “The Treeline.” Jonathan Cape, London. 342pp.

Sachs, Julian and Anderson, Robert. 2005. Increased productivity in the subantarctic ocean during Heinrich events; Nature 434, 1118-1121;(28 April 2005).

Sojtaric, Maja. 2016. Ice Sheets May be Hiding Vast Reservoirs of Powerful Greenhouse GasCAGE.

Wadhams, Peter. 2015. “A Farewell to Ice.” Penguin.

Flowing water in a river, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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