NASA Has Discovered Arctic Lakes Bubbling With Methane—and That’s Very Bad News

Methane bubbles up from the thawed permafrost at the bottom of the thermokarst lake. Katey Walter Anthony/ University of Alaska Fairbanks

Lakes across Alaska and Siberia have started to bubble with methane, and the release of this highly potent greenhouse gas has scientists worried.

Last month NASA released footage showing the bubbling Arctic lakes, which are the result of a little known phenomenon called “abrupt thawing.” It occurs when the permafrost—ground that has been frozen for potentially thousands of years—thaws faster than expected.

Scientists have long known that the thawing permafrost has the potential to release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. As the organic matter that has been locked up in the ground defrosts it decomposes, releasing carbon and methane (a hydrocarbon) in the process.

If all this was released into the atmosphere, the impact on climate change would be huge. In total there is about 1,500 billion tons of carbon locked up in the permafrost—almost double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere right now.

Thawing permafrost has currently been causing problems across the Arctic. In Siberia, huge craters have opened up across the tundra. While not confirmed, it is believed that as the permafrost thaws, pockets of methane are formed. When the pressure gets too high, these pockets explode.

Methane was also thought to be causing the ground to wobble—video released in 2016 showed patches of grassland bobbing up and down when researchers stood on it.

As the thawing continues, it will eventually cause major problems for the towns and cities located in these northern regions—as the ground becomes softer, roads warp and buildings start sinking into the ground.

In a NASA-funded study published in Nature Communications, scientists have now discovered a source of methane that has not been accounted for in climate models—methane coming from “thermokarst” lakes.

These lakes form when the permafrost thaws at a faster rate and deeper into the ground than normal. The thawing creates a depression, which then fills with rain water, ice and snow melt. The water then speeds up the rate of the permafrost thaw at the shores of the lake.

The process—abrupt thawing—could speed up the release of methane into the atmosphere. 09-13-18

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