A Sea of Methane Is Quietly Waiting to Wreak Havoc on the World

methane bubbles of frozen lake baikal
Methane Sea Ready to Wreak Havoc on the WorldGulgun Ulusoy - Getty Images
  • Layers of methane gas sit trapped below permafrost in Arctic regions, but if they’re released, it could spell trouble for the rest of the world.

  • As permafrost conditions change across the Arctic landscape, a sea of methane could escape from under the ice.

  • Researchers believe that sea could be several million cubic feet in size, and its release could have serious impacts on the environment.

Tucked below the vastness of the Arctic’s permafrost ice lies a climate-changing sea of methane gas. It’s trapped below the ever-present layers of ice, slowly leaking out when cracks appear. Any sort of sudden change in the nature of the permafrost could release what researchers believe to be several million cubic feet of the environment-damaging gas.

“At present, the leakage from below permafrost is very low, but factors such as glacial retreat and permafrost thawing may ‘lift the lid’ on this in the future,” Thomas Birchall—a geologist at Norway’s University Center in Svalbard and lead author of a new study published in Frontiers in Earth Science—said in a statement.

The researchers studying the world below the permafrost were surprised to find such an ocean of methane gas, which can migrate beneath the cold seal of the permafrost and potentially escape. Any large-scale seeping of the gas could cause a potentially damaging loop of warming—the methane would force more permafrost thaw, which would then lead to additional gas releases. It’s a cycle that wouldn’t be kind to Earth.

In studying the permafrost—any ice that remains stable for two years or more is considered permafrost—beneath the islands of Svalbard, the researchers found that the layer doesn’t have a constant state. In addition, they discovered that the surprising amount of methane commonly locked below is able to migrate, even while remaining trapped.

Using historical data from wellbore monitors, the team observed a continued trend of gas accumulation at the base of the permafrost. But it wasn’t a uniform finding. At times when the team thought sites were obvious locations for gas, they found no gas present, suggesting that it had already migrated. Other locations were so full of gas that the team drilling the well could hear the bubbling from the explosive levels of methane.

The study focused on Norway, but as the area’s geological and glacial history is similar to the rest of the Arctic region, the team believes that the migrating deposits of methane are likely present elsewhere as well.

But the permafrost keeping that methane contained isn’t uniform or continuous, and neither is the security of these methane deposits. Ocean currents can thin permafrost and create patchy density. The highlands offer a drier situation that offers a more permeable layer, while the lowlands have a permafrost saturated in ice. And the researchers say that even where continuous permafrost exists, geographical features may allow gas produced by the rocks below to escape. With permafrost conditions continually changing, it may only be a matter of time until there’s a larger methane release.

“With permafrost thawing in the Arctic,” the authors wrote, “there is a risk that the impacts of releasing of methane trapped beneath permafrost will lead to positive climatic feedback effects.”

Not an ideal prognosis. Let’s keep the methane on lockdown if we can.

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