Researchers spot methane bubbling up from Arctic Ocean floor

Scientists concerned about potential release of greenhouse gas into atmosphere


These methane bubbles were photographed in the Laptev Sea along the northern coast of Siberia. (PHOTO COURTESY OF PETE HILL/SWERUS-C3)

These methane bubbles were photographed in the Laptev Sea along the northern coast of Siberia. (PHOTO COURTESY OF PETE HILL/SWERUS-C3)

In a region that is already warming faster than any other on Earth, scientists now say we may have more to fear than just thawing permafrost and melting sea ice in the Arctic.

Just a week into their research along the Siberian coast, scientists from Sweden’s Stockholm University have discovered that the seabed of the Arctic Ocean is releasing significant amounts of methane, the potent greenhouse gas considered one of the main drivers of climate change.

By analyzing water samples, scientists working with the Arctic Ocean climate research program SWERUS-C3 say they found “vast methane plumes” escaping from the seafloor at depths between 500 and 150 metres.

In several places, the methane bubbles even rose to the surface.

“This was somewhat of a surprise,” wrote chief scientist Örjan Gustafsson with the SWERUS-C3 program in a July release.

He speculates that the leaking methane from the seafloor of the continental slope may stem from collapsing “methane hydrates” or clusters of methane trapped in frozen water due to low temperatures and high pressure.

And that could have something to do with a swath of warm Atlantic water moving through the Arctic Ocean.

As the water mass continues to move eastward, warming as its moves, it could be leading to the destabilization of those methane hydrates, Gustafsson said.

Regardless of what’s causing the release of methane from the seabed, climate scientists agree the most troubling aspect of the discovery is the methane bubbles that are making it to the ocean’s surface.

“If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d,” Copenhagen-based climatologist Jason Box tweeted Aug. 1.

But SWERUS-C3 researchers hope their discovery can shed light on what’s in store for a warming Arctic Ocean and help to project the future release of the greenhouse gas.

SWERUS-C3 researchers have on earlier expeditions documented venting of methane from the sub-sea permafrost system to the atmosphere over the East Siberian Arctic shelf.

”On this expedition we have gathered a strong team to assess these methane releases in greater detail than ever before to substantially improve our collective understanding of the methane sources and the functioning of these systems,” Gustafsson said.

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