Environment

Powerful methane fountains seen bubbling to surface of Siberian sea

Powerful methane fountains see...
Permafrost in the Arctic is melting at alarming rates, resulting in methane making its way into the atmosphere
Permafrost in the Arctic is melting at alarming rates, resulting in methane making its way into the atmosphere
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Permafrost in the Arctic is melting at alarming rates, resulting in methane making its way into the atmosphere
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Permafrost in the Arctic is melting at alarming rates, resulting in methane making its way into the atmosphere

Methane is a highly potent and insidious greenhouse gas that is continuing to surprise scientists with not just where it can come from, but the quantities with which it is leaking into the atmosphere. The latest, and certainly most dramatic, example comes via a Russian expedition through the East Siberian Sea, where scientists encountered fountains of methane bubbles in concentrations never seen before.

While there isn’t as much methane in the atmosphere as there is carbon dioxide, it is around 28 times better at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, making it a very effective greenhouse gas.

Human activity can generate excess methane in a number of ways. It can come from the livestock we raise who burp it into the air, from manmade reservoirs and from leaky industrial sites like fertilizer plants, which were found to emit 100 times more methane than we thought, according to a study published back in June.

Another source of methane emissions that can be tied to human activity is the organic material normally locked away in permafrost, slabs of soil frozen solid beneath the surface at the polar regions thousands of years ago. As the Arctic heats up at unprecedented rates and areas of permafrost begin to melt, it causes the decomposition of this organic matter and allows methane gas to escape into the atmosphere.

Scientists from Russia’s Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) were well aware of this phenomenon when they set out to study permafrost melt in the East Siberian Sea. The team collected samples of seawater and of sediment from the bottom, water column and stratum, including at a location known through previous research to feature fountains of methane gas arising through permafrost degradation.

Its analysis included hydrological and geochemical studies, along with the use of seismic acoustic instruments to reveal the presence of these methane fountains. But what surprised the scientists was the ability to not just detect the methane bubbles in action, but look over the edge of the vessel and observe them with their own eyes.

In spotting dots of emerald coloring amid the dark Siberian waters, the team saw methane gas making its way from the bottom to the surface in the form of thousands of bubbles, something they liken to finding a needle in a haystack.

This particular patch of methane fountains measured around four meters by four meters across (13 x 13 ft). Rather than special scientific instruments that would be typically used to collect the methane, the team was simply able to scoop up the bubbles with buckets.

“This is the most powerful gas fountain I’ve ever seen," said TPU professor, Igor Semiletov on his 46th expedition to the Arctic. “It is manifested by an increase in methane concentration in the air of up to 16 ppm (parts per million) which is nine times more than the average planetary values. No one has ever registered this before!”

These kinds of developments are often referred to as climate change feedback loops, or tipping points, where human activity triggers events that accelerate the warming effect all on their own, with little we can do to apply the brakes. Loss of ice at the surface is another example, diminishing our planet’s ability to bounce the Sun’s energy back into space, leading to warmer environments which, in turn, lead to more ice melt.

But the melting of millennia-old permafrost and the release of methane into the atmosphere is a big one. Around a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere is covered in permafrost and it is melting at a frightening rate.

Scientists visiting outposts in the Canadian Arctic earlier in the year were shocked to find permafrost thawing out 70 years earlier than predicted. As reported by The Guardian at the time, they described it as a sign the climate is currently warmer than any time in the last “5,000 or more years,” and a “canary in the coalmine.”

Source: Tomsk Polytechnic University

13 comments
VincentWolf
Were literally bubbling away our future. Hello Venus your about to become a true sister planet.
Pierre Collet
Hmmm... ice caps and permafrost thawing, amazon fires, boiling seas... reminds me of that apocalyptic documentary "The day the oceans boiled" http://climatestate.com/2013/05/12/the-day-the-oceans-boiled/ Looks like they got it right, after all...
Matt Fletcher
Last time I checked the East Siberian Sea was already there and for thousands of years. They just found this fountain but that doesn't mean it just started running. How long has it been running, tens, hundreds, or thousands of years? And just because it's running today strong doesn't mean it will be running tomorrow. Not enough data on this to say the cause of this fountain or the effect it will have. Try applying a little bit of the scientific method to this new discovery before jumping to conclusion. And maybe just maybe the reason there is less stable arctic ice could be due to the fact that Russia has the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world (46 ships & 15 on the way) and use them to keep the northern ports open year round for oil production, the 2 million plus people who live there and to continue developing the region.
BrianK56
Those darned cows are hiding under the water again, probably all burped at once.
Fred Ege
Not exactly a breathe of fresh air, is it?
Douglas Rogers
Almost all of the heat exits the Earth by way of the desert. This is very sensitive to path length water.
Cryptonoetic
Unprecedented! Frightening! Shocking! But, "... little we can do to apply the brakes." Maybe, but we still can punish the guilty before this exponentially runaway positive feedback loop renders the earth a smoldering cinder.
mhenriday
Readers might want to note that according to Professor Semiletov, who seems to have a great deal of experience in these matters, the observations were indeed unique : «“This is the most powerful gas fountain I’ve ever seen," said TPU professor, Igor Semiletov on his 46th expedition to the Arctic. “It is manifested by an increase in methane concentration in the air of up to 16 ppm (parts per million) which is nine times more than the average planetary values. No one has ever registered this before!”» Of course, Professor Semiletov may be wrong, and readers here who presumably have never been to the region may be correct in surmising that it's bee running «ten, hundreds, or thousands of years». Why take the risk and bother to investigate natural phenomena en place, when the truth of the matter can be discovered by relaxiing in the comfort of one's own armchair ?... Henri
Wolf0579
The lack of science literacy is mind-boggling. Go ahead and joke about it. There is a better than even chance your grandchildren or great grandchildren will have their lives cut short because of climate change that could have been stopped... but we were too greedy to listen to the scientists who tried to warn us when there was still time.
Tim Higgins
You would think by now we would have started to mine and use this as a replacement for natural gas, it's coming out of the ground anyway and is highly flammable.