Study Finds Surprising Arctic Methane Emission Source

And no. It’s not polar bear farts!

It seems that methane gas is trapped under the ice and the melting of the polar ice caps may release all that greenhouse gas into the atmosphere which would contribute to global warming.

(Phew! That was close!!)

According to a recent article by our favourite envirogeeks over at, “The fragile and rapidly changing Arctic region is home to large reservoirs of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As Earth’s climate warms, the methane, frozen in reservoirs stored in Arctic tundra soils or marine sediments, is vulnerable to being released into the atmosphere, where it can add to global warming. Now a multi-institutional study by Eric Kort of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., has uncovered a surprising and potentially important new source of Arctic methane: the ocean itself.”

Researchers flying low over the Arctic (five times between 2009 and 2010) observed increased methane levels… about one-half percent larger than normal background levels.

But where was the methane coming from?

(It wasn’t me. Promise!)

The scientists ruled out man-made carbon monoxide in the atmosphere (they were flying north of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas) and also methane coming from high-latitude wetlands or geologic reservoirs.

Eventually, they pinpointed a source: the ocean surface, through cracks in Arctic sea ice and areas of partial sea ice cover. The cracks expose open Arctic seawater, allowing the ocean to interact with the air, and methane in the surface waters to escape into the atmosphere. The team detected no enhanced methane levels when flying over areas of solid ice.

So how is the methane being produced?

(“Pull my finger!” – ‘No way, dude!’)

The scientists aren’t yet sure, but Kort hinted biological production from living things in Arctic surface waters may be a likely culprit.

(Dodged another bullet!)

 “It’s possible that as large areas of sea ice melt and expose more ocean water, methane production may increase, leading to larger methane emissions,” Kort said.

Future studies will be needed to understand the enhanced methane levels and associated emission processes and to measure their total contribution to overall Arctic methane levels.

(Did somebody step on a duck?)

Way to go, polar bears. And you’re not totally off the hook yet!



The study, published April 22 in Nature Geoscience, included participation from JPL and Caltech; NSF, Arlington, Va.; NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, Boulder, Colo.; the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, Boulder; Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey; Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogota, Colombia; and Science and Technology Corporation, Boulder, Colo. JPL is a division of Caltech.

The article was reprinted from materials provided by NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


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