Paradise Cove

The vicious cycles of carbon and methane

Seracs are jagged pinnacles of ice formed as a glacier flows downslope. (Photo: Kim Angeli)

This post continues the Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition, gathering photographic evidence of global warming in Alaska with researchers Bruce Molnia, Shawn Dilles, and Kim Angeli on board the Endeavour.


In the morning when I came up to the salon – the boat’s living room with the galley on the forward end and large windows on either side – Patsy had breakfast going and Bruce was on a second cup of coffee. The weather was the same as yesterday with low clouds and fog. Looking out across the bay I couldn’t even see the far side of the anchorage, not much more than a half mile away. Not a good morning for photos. We were in no hurry to get underway.

Shawn came up from below and joined us.

The conversation turned from toast and bacon to how we know global warming has been caused by humans. The circumstantial evidence, they said, was that the rise in warming and the rise in atmospheric carbon and the rise in industry all coincide. More directly, we know that since 1800 there has been a 40% increase in atmospheric carbon but the ratio of carbon isotope C14 – which does not exist in fossil fuels – relative to other isotopes of carbon, has decreased. The ratio of C14 to the other carbon isotopes tells us exactly how much of the carbon in the air now is from fossil fuels, and its most of it.

“Has the rate of temperature rise slowed down?” I asked.

“No,” Bruce said instantly. “And I don’t know when it will. The population of the Earth today includes more individuals than have lived in the entire history of humans, and each person has requirements that cause greenhouse gases: everybody wants to cook their food, everyone wants to be warmer or colder. All of that requires combustion, which produces methane and carbon dioxide, which leads to climate change.”

“And the problem gets worse because we keep cutting down trees,” Shawn said. “When you chop down a tree you do two things: you eliminate something that can sequester the gasses in the wood, then you burn the wood (or let the wood rot) and you release that carbon into the atmosphere.”

“It’s the same with tundra,” he went on. “There is a lot of sequestered carbon – and methane − in the tundra. The more it melts, the more it releases methane, the more it melts. And methane is 15 to 16 times worse than carbon dioxide, in terms of its reflectivity. There are lakes in the melting permafrost that are bubbling methane. Literally bubbling methane.”

An hour later the clouds and fog were starting to thin and it was time to get moving.

I went down to the engine room to start the engine. Bella followed me. She watches us and remembers patterns and gets excited when she sees a pattern she likes, like getting underway.

The number two generator was already running and the main water intake was already open. I glanced into the bilge. It was dry, which is always good. I opened the fuel cocks on the main engine and the number one generator then opened the compressed air line which feeds the throttle and the horn. Then I checked the oil in the main engine and number one generator. Both were fine. Finally, I started the main which rumbled to life, and waited for the oil gauge to reach the green.

In the past I calculated the battery storage I’d need to replace the Endeavour’s diesel engines with electric motors. Given the distances we cover, it isn’t feasible and may never be. But a hydrogen fuel cell could work, someday. It’s just a matter of technology. This morning, though, I was generating my share of carbon.

I left the engine room with Bella at my heels and closed the watertight hatch behind me, then went up on deck, up to the bow, where I screwed the capstan down on the windlass, switched it on, and started bringing up the anchor. Bella was running around the deck, sticking her head out of one chock then running to another, barking at seagulls.

- William Urschel