Scientists in northern Alaska have discovered a lake that is rapidly bubbling as it releases methane gas into the atmosphere.
Washington Post writer Chris Mooney pens this remarkable piece from the high Arctic.
2. Here's some brief video of the kind of methane bubbling that we saw at the lake in the story, Esieh Lake pic.twitter.com/7aqyiqzIP1
— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) September 24, 2018
Katey Walter Anthony has studied some 300 lakes across the tundras of the Arctic. But sitting on the mucky shore of her latest discovery, the Arctic expert said she’d never seen a lake like this one.
Set against the austere peaks of the Western Brooks Range, the lake, about 20 football fields in size, looked as if it were boiling. Its waters hissed, bubbled and popped as a powerful greenhouse gas escaped from the lake bed. Some bubbles grew as big as grapefruits, visibly lifting the water’s surface several inches and carrying up bits of mud from below.
This was methane.
As the permafrost thaws across the fast-warming Arctic, it releases carbon dioxide, the top planet-warming greenhouse gas, from the soil into the air. Sometimes, that thaw spurs the growth of lakes in the soft, sunken ground, and these deep-thawing bodies of water tend to unleash the harder-hitting methane gas.
But not this much of it. This lake, which Walter Anthony dubbed Esieh Lake, looked different. And the volume of gas wafting from it could deliver the climate system another blow if lakes like this turn out to be widespread.
Climate change wildcard
As permafrost thaws out, more methane is released into the atmosphere. Methane is shorter lived in the atmosphere but is also many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. It’s still an important scientific unknown how much methane will be released into the atmosphere as permafrost warms.
5. And here's another showing just how much these lakes could worsen greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost by the year 2100 in a moderate (not the worst!) warming scenario. pic.twitter.com/didGTIO0fg
— Chris Mooney (@chriscmooney) September 25, 2018
Hope we can keep this from getting out of control. Amount of extra methane & warming potential locked up in frozen permafrost is HUGE. We don't have a good est. of what might be a safe amount of add'l warming, tho of course, keeping warming to less than 2C probably is safest. https://t.co/P0gMYHCu3z
— Jonathan Overpeck (@TucsonPeck) September 24, 2018
So as we change our climate methane release is an important but hard to quantify feedback loop. More methane can boost planetary warming even more than CO2. The big question climate scientist don’t yet know is, how much and how fast?