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With an impact on the climate 30 times greater than carbon dioxide, methane has long been known as a major factor in climate change. Now, a new report describes in alarming how the the Arctic Ocean is bealching far greater amounts of the gas into the atmosphere than previously thought.
The research, published this past week in the journal Nature Geoscience, concludes that methane is being released from the rapidly warming Arctic Ocean at twice the rate previously predicted.
The findings, compiled over the past ten years by Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, both of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, found that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is releasing at least 17 teragrams of the methane into the atmosphere each year. A teragram is equal to 1 million tons.
Previous studies indicated that the same area was releasing 8 teragrams of methane annually.
SEE VIDEO: Firey demonstration of Arctic methane release (below)
In a process that is repeating what happens on land in the Arctic, as the waters of the Arctic warm, its floor, dry land as recently as 7,000 years ago, begins to release the methane it built up when it was dry permafrost.
The methane is produced when biological matter decomposes. As long as the tundra or the sea floor remains frozen, it doesn’t get released. But when temperatures rise rapidly, the gas is released quickly and that, combined with its extra potency, acts as something of a turbo boost for climate change.
Even though methane release is not a man-made source of climate change, it is both caused by warming temperatures and serves to accelerate the process. The methane release has the potential to cause global temperature increases, but it also raises temperatures locally, leading to the release of even more methane.
SEE VIDEO: Natalia Shakhova discusses undersea methane release (below)
The study also said an increasing number of storms had sped up methane release by agitating the water, forcing the release of the gas in the same way that shaking a soda can causes the carbonation it contains to be released faster.
Even though the report has been received with alarm in scientific circles, Shakhova said the report was “conservative” and warned that it was the “tip of the iceberg”.
“We should not only just worry. We should study,” she said.
In addition to the rapid release of methane, scientists expressed concern that the amount of sub-sea methane may be far greater than the amount trapped under dry soil.
At 2 million square kilometres, the floor of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf covers three times more area than the Siberian wetlands, currently considered to be the source of methane in the Northern Hemisphere.
VIDEO: Natalia Shakhova discusses undersea methane release in a 2010 interview
VIDEO: University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist Katey Walter Anthony ignites methane being released from Arctic lake bed