Arctic lake bubbling with methane gas

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.

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.

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?


  • Steve Case

    The link to the Scientific American says that “methane warms the planet by 86 times as much as CO2” That’s an interesting statistic, but it really doesn’t say how much methane is actually projected to run up global temperature. Chris Mooney, Johnathan Overpeck and Paul Huttner ought to get busy and find out how much methane will warm things up over the upcoming decades. My guess is it’s nowhere near what the “86 times as much as CO2” would lead us to believe. Probably a small fraction of a degree.

    Steve Case – Milwaukee, WI