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Climate change and the methane crisis: Q & A with Harold Hensel

A special project on methane: interviews with the scientists and experts
A special project on methane: interviews with the scientists and experts
NOAA

With climate change rearing its ugly head with extreme weather disasters pounding the globe, some people have been connecting the dots to the horrifying conclusion that there is yet another catastrophe underway with implications far exceeding what most of us could ever dream of: an unfolding methane crisis of epic proportions. Capable of causing a planetary extinction, record high amounts of methane are insidiously being released into the oceans and going into our atmosphere. Methane, a colorless and odorless gas, can super heat the atmosphere up to 100x more than CO2. In an interview with Harold Hensel, member of The Arctic Methane Emergency Group, I explore some serious questions about the rising threat of this deadly gas. Not only is methane being released in record amounts from thawing permafrost and under the oceans, but it also recently blew out of the earth in Siberia in at least 3 well documented events, creating massive craters that look like something right out of a Sci-Fi movie.

As the Russian team of scientists from Arctic expedition Swerus C3 prepare to go on the second leg of their journey to research and document the methane in the Arctic, Harold Hensel, along with thousands of climate change scientists and experts, are genuinely concerned about what's happening around the globe. They are so concerned that many of them, including James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City from 1981-2013, have declared this a planetary emergency. Many of them have been sending out warnings of this possibility for several years, and now their greatest fears are coming to pass. Consider the warnings of Hansen several years ago: "We are in a planetary emergency," says Hansen, decrying, "the gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public."

Hansen has also pulled no punches in speaking bluntly now that he is no longer working at NASA, and speaks freely about his thoughts: "CEO's of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEO's should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature."

Not only has climate change raised havoc on habitat and species, but its continued release will super-heat the atmosphere and further heat the already warming oceans. It is also surmised to have been the cause of past planetary extinctions.

To understand why the methane has become an emergency, we need to understand that this potent gas that had previously been stored in permafrost and in hydrates for millions of years, is now being released because of the record heat in the oceans and in the atmosphere because of human induced climate change. As the Arctic reflective cover melts, it allows even more sunlight to penetrate into the ocean, causing further heating. It is estimated that there are over 100 to 530,000 gigatons of methane locked below the ocean depths and in the permafrost, and a massive explosion of methane is possible at any time. Consider the Siberian craters as evidence of the possibility of a catastrophic burst of methane happening in the future.

In this first Q & A in this series of interviews about the methane crisis, Harold Hensel discusses his background and answers more questions about climate change, his thoughts in geo-engineering and where he feels we stand in relation to climate change and the impending crisis:

Q: First of all Harold, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what your current role is a climate change educator/activist is, and how much time would you say you spend weekly researching the latest news on methane, just so readers can get a scope of how much time and effort you put into this topic?

Hensel: I grew up on a farm in Western Iowa in the 40's and 50's. We didn't know it at the time but we were organic farmers. We did not use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or GMO corn and beans. We rotated crops. Alfalfa and Brome grass were part of the rotation. The cattle, pigs and chickens were "free range". We did not use antibiotics or growth hormones. We had grass-ways for water runoff and did our best to conserve the soil. The value of leaving the land in better condition that we found it was impressed on me by my father and Uncle.

After high school, I went to College at the University of Northern Iowa. I had no electives for the first two years. Core courses were required to graduate. I took, chemistry, biology, geography, economics, physics, art, history, music, humanities, psychology, English composition and physical education. Then I transferred to Sam Houston University because my brother was teaching photography there. I had enough hours for three majors, social work which was in the Sociology Dept, history and government. My first job was as a caseworker for an adoption and foster care agency. My second job was an Occupational Counselor. The Feds sent me to graduate school in counseling psychology and stopped the program with three courses left for a Masters Degree.

I was an Occupational Counselor until Nixon got elected and had all 6000 counselors fired or not replaced. The reason was that we were helping people. From there I became the first Director of the Linn County Counsel on Aging. I was on a three year Federal Grant and had to get permanent financing when the grant ran out. I was successful in doing this with a lot of help. I recruited 1500 volunteers in a year and a half and had 900 of them working in seven different programs. I was making $10,000 a year and decided I didn't want to be on welfare. I started my own insurance agency and with the aid of my wife Mary, made it successful. We have about 6000 people insured. We used to get bonuses of around $10,000 a year for having low loss ratios but not anymore. Storms have doubled in the last ten years and the claims are ruining our bonuses. Insurance people are acutely aware of climate change.

I started researching the number of storms on the NOAA web site over 10 years ago. I was surfing the web and got into the London Museum. I found Katey Walter's presentation on methane. I could see the potential damage that methane can do. I sent her presentation to around 100 media outlets. National Geographic took it and ran with it. I have been studying methane for about 15 to 20 hours a week for at least 8 years. I have been reading books about climate change. I listen to CD talking books going to and from work. I write letters to the editor. I have connected with some of the greatest Arctic Scientists on Facebook.

Q: Harold, I know the latest news about the newly discovered Siberian craters with high levels of methane gas in them must have been a shocker to you, as it has been to many of us that have been following methane gas and climate change. Now that we are not only seeing climate change in action (extreme weather disasters, warming oceans, animal and plant die-offs) and also have solid proof that methane is indeed rapidly entering our atmosphere, are you still hopeful Harold that something can be done to stop this runaway train we are on?

Hensel: Actually I was not shocked by the newly discovered Siberian craters. I identified what they were from my "armchair analysis". I called them "methane blow holes" before the scientists arrived. It was great when the scientists identified what they actually were. I was aware of "methane traps" that are stored in permafrost under pressure. I have a slide show presentation that I give to groups that I explain various sources of methane. The first impulsive thought that comes to peoples minds is "can't methane be used for an energy source?" Yes it can. How much methane can people use? There is over 2 trillion tons of it in the Arctic alone. And on second thought, burning methane produces C02. Katey Walter identified about 100,000 active " mechanical seeps" of methane in thaw lakes in the Arctic and estimated about 50,000 more. Mechanical seeps are methane pockets that are already there that have found there way to the surface. Plus the thaw lakes are biologically producing methane like land fills currently.

What is really concerning is what Malcolm Light calls "mantle methane". This is inorganic methane produced by iron oxides, calcite and water. This methane has created huge reservoirs of methane near the mantle. It is around 1200 degrees and under extreme pressure. Fractures created by tectonic plates subducting, overriding and crashing has created fractures in earth's crust. Mantle methane has had a route to the surface through the fractures but they have been sealed by ice. The seals are thawing. Methane bursts are coming to the surface and entering the atmosphere. This wasn't supposed to happen but it did. Pre industrial levels of methane were around 750 ppb and under. This is the way it was for at least 400,000 years. Dr. James Hansen says that about 1250 ppb could be livable. Mauna Loa, Hawaii research station is showing about 1860 ppb. The Arctic is measuring about 2200 ppb with spikes up to 2600 ppb. Temperature historically has followed methane and C02. There is already enough methane and C02 in the atmosphere for the temperature to go past the temperature of the Permian mass extinction.

We are past the opportunity to prevent being extinguished by methane and C02. Geo-engineering is the last chance to do something. The problem has gotten so large that is is not likely that an effective engineering solution can be found. My only suggestion has been to find a way to create more Hydroxyls in the atmosphere. Hydroxyls are nature's air cleaners. They are created by the infrared wavelength in sunlight hitting moisture at about 18,000 feet. There is a hydroxyl layer between the troposphere and the stratosphere that cleans the air. Hydroxyls are especially good at decomposing methane. Apparently they have been overwhelmed and weakened. An increase of hydroxyls could boost nature's own self defense system. It is an idea.

Q: The current Swerus C3 expedition in the Arctic aboard the Icebreaker Oden has discovered a “mega-plume” of methane gas coming from the Laptev sea area. Now that we know “plumes” are indeed coming from the ocean depths and entering the atmosphere, do you still feel that we would be able to somehow “harness” these plumes to stop or at least slow down runaway climate change? It seems like at this point geo-engineering would be the only solution to capturing this methane gas and stop it from entering the atmosphere. What are your thoughts on geo-engineering at this point?

Hensel: There are thousands of plumes. Some that have been seen are about a mile across. Just the East Siberian Ocean is about the length of the lower 48. It is about 700 miles wide. There are large areas of methane hydrates throughout the entire Arctic Ocean. Plus, there has been a discovery in where ocean waters are creating methane through a biochemical process. Methane has covered nearly the entire northern hemisphere. If someone thinks they can create a "harness" for methane or "capture" it, I would let them have a go at it.

Q: Harold, there still seems to be great apathy from the majority of people on earth about climate change and its implications, how do you talk to people about the current state of emergency we are in? This is a really hard subject for many of us because we know the emergency but they do not. How does one “talk about” a possible extinction event in our lifetime? Any advice Harold?

Hensel: I have come to the conclusion that it is useless to try to talk to most people about the threat of methane. The subject is just too distant from their world view, intelligence and education. It won't make much difference anyway and it just raises their anxiety. Stephen Hawking has a theory that evolution has a fatal defect. His theory is that intelligence does not evolve fast enough to prevent it's own extinction. There are people who are intelligent enough but they have to be in the majority, near majority or super majority without the minority being able to block them to prevent intelligence extinction. He contemplates that the evolution defect may be universal and this may be why we haven't heard from other civilizations by now. We may be living in a brief shining moment. I have been trying my best to prove his theory wrong but I have not gotten very far. I am not paralyzed or helpless so I will keep trying. Prove Hawking's theory wrong! I will also keep performing my moral obligation regardless of the outcome. It is really nice to speak with people like yourself who do understand. I am really sorry that intelligence is probably going extinct. Humans had so much promise.

In the next few series of articles exclusive here at the Examiner, I will also interview Professor Guy McPherson, Professor Paul Beckwith, scientist Malcolm Light, Sam Carana of the Arctic News Blog, Rolly Montpellier of Boomer Warrior and Dr. Peter Carter of GreenHeart Education to further explore this methane crisis with those difficult to ask questions. If you are on Facebook and want to learn more join The Methane Clathrate Gun Time Bomb group, where methane and climate change are the main topic of group discussion.