Huge amounts of methane are encapsulated under the sea floor in the Arctic.
Now powerful greenhouse gases are in danger of being released at a faster rate than ever before.
This means we may have to reduce our emissions from society faster, says Professor Organ Gustafsson.
Climate scientists have long worried about the warmer climate in the Arctic. As temperatures rise, permafrost thaws. Something that leads to methane emissions – which in turn increases climate change.
In recent years, researchers have been able to observe how bubbles of methane have seeped to the surface in the Laptin Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean, northern Siberia. The question was where they came from.
The source of the emissions remained mysterious.
It has been speculated that this is stored organic matter that has been dissolved and converted to methane. Or it’s just methane already formed.
Image: NASA Earth Observatory
The Sannikovsundet ice sheet in the Arctic Ocean.
Fired with heating
A third theory argued that it is natural gas from huge underground sources. The permafrost has previously held this gas in place, but as it melts, pressure increases and cracks form on the sea floor, causing the gas to be released.
Now a Swedish-Russian research project, led by Professor Organ Gustafsson at the Pauline Climate Research Center at Stockholm University, has found the explanation.
Significant emissions risk
In an article In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers describe how, with the help of methane molecular formation studies, they have proven that most emissions come from a deep natural gas source.
This means there is a risk that we will see much larger emissions in the future because methane does not first need to be formed through slow bacterial decomposition of organic matter, says Organ Gustafsson.
Greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost are not included in the climate calculations that underpin the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Photo: Eva Dahlin / Stockholm University
Professor Organ Gustafson
“Turn the important curve”
This means we may have to reduce our emissions from society at a faster pace to achieve the climate goal, says Organ Gustafsson.
At the same time, he wants to alleviate fears.
So far, methane from thawing permafrost does not affect levels in the atmosphere much. But that shows how important it is now to invert our emission curves.