An international team of scientists have discovered evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean are starting to be released, potentially adding dangerous fuel to fast-changing global climate conditions.
According to the International Siberian Shelf Study (ISSS-2020), methane levels at the surface of the ocean are currently four to eight times higher than normal, while slope sediments extending across the continental shelf contain a wealth of frozen methane hydrates, reports The Guardian.
The frozen methane deposits are believed to be “sleeping giants of the carbon cycle,” because the release of the greenhouse gas could potentially expedite climate change due to the fact that it has a warming effect that is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The release of methane into the atmosphere is believed to be one of the major contributors to global warming, scientists have warned.
“Climate warming is awakening the ‘sleeping giants’ of the carbon cycle, namely permafrost and methane hydrates,” Stockholm University Prof. Örjan Gustafsson, a leader of the ISSS-2020 expedition, said in a statement last month.
“How much this will lead to added emissions of the strong greenhouse gas methane is poorly understood,” he added. “This is one of the grand challenges in current climate change research and a central goal of the expedition to address.”
The new discovery of methane released in the Arctic Ocean is now raising major concerns that a new climate feedback loop may have just begun.
The ISSS-2020 explained:
“One of the greatest uncertainties surrounding climate warming [concerns] the emission of naturally occurring greenhouse gases, such as methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide (N2O) from Arctic thawing permafrost, and collapsing methane hydrates—crystals made of methane gas molecules ‘caged’ between solid water molecules—in the seabed north of Siberia will increase in the future.”
The chief scientist of the expedition, Prof. Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, called the methane discharges “significantly larger” than anything previously observed. The leader of the ISSS-2020 team also acknowledged that their findings are preliminary, and the actual scale of methane releases still need to be analyzed and confirmed.
“The discovery of actively releasing shelf slope hydrates is very important and unknown until now,” Semiletov said. “This is a new page. Potentially they can have serious climate consequences, but we need more study before we can confirm that.”
Likewise, any impact on the climate won’t be felt in the near future. However, in time the massive release of methane could very likely contribute to the changing climate.
“At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered,” Gustafsson said. “This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing.”
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