Methane Gas Exposure

Giant plumes of Methane bubbling to surface of Arctic Ocean

Dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane – a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide – have been seen in the Arctic Ocean.

Antarctic oceanic and tropospheric studies focus on the structure and processes of the ocean-atmosphere environment and their relationships with the global ocean, the atmosphere, and the marine biosphere. As part of the global heat engine, the Antarctic has a major role in the world’s transfer of energy. Its ocean/atmosphere system is known to be both an indicator and a component of climate change.

Russian scientists discovered the methane gas, some 1,000 meters in diameter, bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Scientists are concerned that as the Arctic Shelf recedes, the unprecedented levels of gas released could greatly accelerate global climate change.

The sheer scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.

Dr Semiletov’s team published a study in 2010 estimating that the methane emissions from this region were about eight million tons a year, but the latest expedition suggests this is a significant underestimate of the phenomenon.

Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences tells the UK’s Independent that the plumes of methane, a gas 20 times as harmful as carbon dioxide, have shocked scientists who have been studying the region for decades. “Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of meters in diameter,” he said. “This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It’s astounding.”

Scientists estimate that there are hundreds of millions of tones of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost, which extends from the mainland into the seabed of the relatively shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. One of the greatest fears is that with the disappearance of the Arctic sea-ice in summer, and rapidly rising temperatures across the entire region, which are already melting the Siberian permafrost, the trapped methane could be suddenly released into the atmosphere leading to rapid and severe climate change.

“In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed,” Dr Semiletov said. “We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometer or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal.”

Dr Semiletov released his findings for the first time last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. December 2011.