Toxic Methane Gas Being Released By Arctic Thaw

Glacial Melt

Recently methane plumes have been discovered all over the arctic region.

In the last ice age mammoths fed on the lush grasses and vegetation of current-day Alaska and Siberia.  Food was plentiful and life was good.

Enter the ice age.  Glaciers started to cover the land and temperatures plummeted.  This change happened so quickly that the vegetation didn’t have an opportunity to decompose before the sheets of ice covered them creating level after level of what we have come to known as “permafrost”.

This stuff has stayed frozen for the last 50,000 years until recently.  You guessed it, global warming is on the rise due  to the increase of CO2 emissions from human industrial activity in the last 150 years.

This thawing is similar to what happens when if you take a frozen bag of veggies out of the freezer.  The veggies stay frozen while in the freezer, but the temperature rises when you take them out.  They thaw and start to decompose.  The difference is that frozen broccoli doesn’t emit plumes of methane gas.

When the permafrost thaws it starts to decompose as well.  Since there is no oxygen at the bottom of these layers when it decomposes it releases methane gas.  In areas, like the bottom of a lake where there is little oxygen,  a bacteria called “methanogens” breaks down the ancient vegetation and methane gas is released.

This methane gas emitted speeds up the thawing layers of permafrost turning the supporting ground into mush.  This creates vast sinkholes known as thermokarsts creating “drunken forests” where trees and shrubs lean at bizarre obtuse angles.  The landscape ends up looking like a science fiction depiction of an alien landscape.

Justin Gillis writes for the N.Y. Times,


“This is thinner ice than we like,” she said. “Don’t tell my mother-in-law! My own mother doesn’t know.”

Dr. Walter Anthony had already run chemical tests on the methane from one of the lakes, dating the carbon molecules within the gas to 30,000 years ago. She has found carbon that old emerging at numerous spots around Fairbanks, and carbon as old as 43,000 years emerging from lakes in Siberia.

“These grasses were food for mammoths during the end of the last ice age,” Dr. Walter Anthony said. “It was in the freezer for 30,000 to 40,000 years, and now the freezer door is open.”

Scientists are not sure yet whether thermokarst lakes will become more common throughout the Arctic in a warming climate, a development that could greatly accelerate permafrost thaw and methane production. But they have already started to see increases in some regions, including northernmost Alaska.

Scientists say that if we can get our emissions under control by 2020 Methane emission will only account for 10 percent of human output of CO2.  Under control means that emissions must peak by 2020 and go higher no further.

They also worry that once the decomposition is under full sway it will be too late to stop.

You can read the rest of Justin Gillis’ New York Times article here

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