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Intro: "As Arctic sea ice breaks apart, massive amounts of methane could be released into the atmosphere from the cold waters beneath."

A new airborne study with NASA contributions measured surprising levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane coming from cracks in Arctic sea ice and areas of partial sea ice cover. (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
A new airborne study with NASA contributions measured surprising levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane coming from cracks in Arctic sea ice and areas of partial sea ice cover. (photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Arctic Methane Leaks Threaten Climate

By Michael Marshall, NewScientist

23 April 12


s Arctic sea ice breaks apart, massive amounts of methane could be released into the atmosphere from the cold waters beneath.

High concentrations of the greenhouse gas have been recorded in the air above cracks in the ice. This could be evidence of yet another positive feedback on the warming climate - leading to even faster Arctic warming.

The Arctic is home to vast stores of methane - there are billions of tonnes of methane in permafrost alone. It is a potent greenhouse gas, so a major methane release would greatly accelerate climate change. The gas is found in icy crystals called hydrates beneath the shallow seas that flood some areas of the continental crust, as well as in permafrost. It is also being released from Arctic wetlands.

But this doesn't explain why Eric Kort of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and his colleagues found patches of methane in remote regions of the Arctic Ocean, far from any of these known methane sources.

The team found the patches during five flights over the Arctic Ocean between 2009 and 2010, as part of a project to systematically map greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

Kort estimates that, in the methane-rich regions, about 2 milligrams of the gas were being released per square metre of ocean every day. Some of the patches were close to the oil and gas plants in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, but prevailing wind directions make these plants an unlikely source of the release.

Gassy Ocean

So where does the gas come from? Since the 1970s, scientists have known that ocean surface waters are rich in methane. It seems to be made by marine bacteria trying to survive in waters that don't have many nutrients in the form of nitrates. "This source appears to be a likely candidate to explain what we observed," Kort says.

Water in the Arctic Ocean doesn't mix well, so the water near the surface tends to remain there. Consequently, the methane ends up trapped near the surface. In other oceans, it would get broken down through reaction with oxygen or consumed by methanotrophic bacteria, but the cold weather helps to preserve it.

Kort saw methane releases close to cracks in the sea ice, or in places where the ice had broken up. This could be because methane only escapes from agitated water, says Ellen Damm of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. This agitation is most likely to occur when autumn sets in and ice crystals start forming in the water, creating turbulence.

Hotter and Hotter

The findings will need to be replicated, says Euan Nisbet, an earth scientist at Royal Holloway, University of London. But if the leak is widespread across the Arctic, this mechanism could prove to be a significant source of greenhouse gas.

"We know the Arctic is warming very fast indeed," Nisbet says. And as the warming climate leads to more breaks in the sea ice, more ice-surrounded patches of open water will be able to release their methane, further accelerating global warming.

The question now is: how significant will this new effect on warming be? "It might be small," Nisbet says, "or it could be another serious problem."



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+7 # brianf 2012-04-23 08:32
Hopefully this is small, because the last thing we need is more methane. Right now I'm more worried about the huge amounts of methane coming from frozen methane hydrates caused by warming Arctic waters. This has been going on for the past few years and seems to be rapidly accelerating.

Some scientists are warning this feedback could make global warming unstoppable if we don't head it off by cooling the Arctic (using geo-engineering ). They think that we need to do this beginning Spring 2013. But I don't think we have the "political will" to do this in 5 years, much less 1 year. So they had better be wrong. Search "arctic methane emergency group" to learn more.
+1 # Archie1954 2012-04-23 08:43
Isn't sea methane also very dangerous for marine shipping? Don't ships sink from lack of buoyancy when water and methane are mixed?
0 # BobboMax 2012-04-23 11:50
It's clear the methane hydrates in the Arctic represent both a great hazard and a great opportunity. brianf suggests geo-engineering - this is an opportunity to mitigate methane release by harvesting the methane hydrates before they melt and become potent GHGs. Clearly, this will require the assistance of major oil companies, such as Shell, Exxon or BP, all of whom have shown their ability to manage the environmental disasters often associated with energy extraction and transportation- think Exxon Valdez, Deep Water Horizon and the Nigerian Delta....
+3 # brianf 2012-04-24 07:02
Capturing some of the methane is actually one of the methods being considered, but it's a much worse solution than cooling the Arctic to prevent the gases from being released in the first place.

I would never advocate geo-engineering unless it was necessary. It would have been MUCH wiser, cheaper, and less risky to transform our energy system as soon as we learned about the harms that burning fossil fuels causes. But instead we expanded it. Except for a few states, didn't even act when scientists warned us about the dangers of global warming.

Now we probably need to implement geo-engineering , but we also still need to transform our energy system, and very quickly. Now it will cost much more. And still we delay. Will we keep delaying until we have no chance of stopping the feedback? At this point, it seems very likely we will.
0 # Hey There 2013-03-24 21:03
Surely you jest!
-1 # robbeygay 2012-04-23 18:48
As I said elsewhere God & Nature work in mysterious ways. Something wiped our areas of Sodom & Gomorrogh, whast that whjen Noak came on the scene, or different sin corrections, I forget.

If Republicans have their way, wars for economics reasoning, I guess the 2029 depression may trigger WW-III and God Knows all, is readying his own Drone force to do it again, and thus we can start again next century. Better build an ark now. I think Stan Freeman, or another commedian has a recording of God's Ark building 40 cubits by whatever etc.
Then Let the Force be with you.
+3 # geospy 2012-04-23 21:07
Interesting topic so there is a bacteria to attack the methane.
It's used in Bioremediation and I found this link on the web:

The methanotrophs are aerobic bacteria that oxidize methane as an energy source and carbon source through the enzyme methane monooxygenase (MMO).

also found on the web:
Methanotrophic bacteria are ubiquitous. The growth of type II bacteria appears to be favored in environments that contain relatively high levels of methane, low ...

Here some more:

thanks good I am not a microbiologist. .. :)
but there is sure a natural remedy to this.

To an other subject: Nuclear waste... as we like to build rockets, how about sending the waste towards the sun and let it melt away ?
Would be sure better spent money then using it for war...

Just some thoughts.
0 # brianf 2012-04-24 07:12
The methane that is bubbling up will be released before bacteria can use it. They can, however, use the methane that gets dissolved in the water, which will help some.

We need to test various solutions on a small scale now, so that we know which is likely to work best and with the least harm. Sending water vapor into the atmosphere in the Arctic may be a good solution with relatively little side effects. But it might change weather patterns or other things, which is why we need tests. Still, it's probably much better than burning the methane and releasing more CO2.
+4 # Valleyboy 2012-04-24 03:49
So it seems that the Earth in fact has failsafe devices set up wipe out the dominant species if they become too damaging to her.

Unfortunately, most other species will go down with us.
0 # noitall 2012-04-25 12:08
Don't worry, there'll be money and jobs available through the total fall until we splat on the ground. "Return to your homes, your jobs are safe". Just keep the reality under wraps otherwise the cash will stop flowing and some rich guy might be endangered while there's still a buck to be made.

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