Arctic methane release
Arctic methane release is the release of methane from seas and soils in permafrost regions of the Arctic. While a long-term natural process, it may be exacerbated by global warming. This results in a positive feedback effect, as methane is itself a powerful greenhouse gas. The feedback of the undisturbed process is comparably weak, however, because the local release leads to a warming spread over the whole globe.
The Arctic region is one of the many natural sources of the greenhouse gas methane. Global warming accelerates its release, due to both release of methane from existing stores, and from methanogenesis in rotting biomass. Large quantities of methane are stored in the Arctic in natural gas deposits, permafrost, and as submarine clathrates. Permafrost and clathrates degrade on warming, thus large releases of methane from these sources may arise as a result of global warming. Other sources of methane include submarine taliks, river transport, ice complex retreat, submarine permafrost and decaying gas hydrate deposits.
During interglacials, average atmospheric methane concentrations are nearly twice the lowest values in the depths of glacial. Concentrations in the Arctic atmosphere are higher by 8–10% than that in the Antarctic atmosphere. During cold glacier epochs, this gradient decreases to practically insignificant levels. Land ecosystems are considered the main sources of this asymmetry, although it has been suggested that "the role of the Arctic Ocean is significantly underestimated." Soil temperature and moisture levels have been found to be significant variables in soil methane fluxes in tundra environments.
Contribution to climate change
The release of methane from the Arctic is in itself a contributor to global warming as a result of polar amplification. Recent observations in the Siberian arctic show increased rates of methane release from the Arctic seabed. Land-based permafrost, also in the Siberian arctic, was also recently observed to be releasing large amounts of methane, estimated at over 4 million tons – significantly above previous estimates.
In the plot showing the global atmospheric methane concentration (the significant measure from the viewpoint of global warming and radiative forcing), however, the rate of the increase in atmospheric methane has been slowing until 2004, indicating that the contribution from Arctic release is currently not the dominant factor in the global picture.
Current methane release has previously been estimated at 0.5 Mt per year. Shakhova et al. (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gt of Carbon is presently locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, and 5-10% of that area is subject to puncturing by open taliks. They conclude that "release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time". That would increase the methane content of the planet's atmosphere by a factor of twelve.
In 2008 the United States Department of Energy National Laboratory system identified potential clathrate destabilization in the Arctic as one the most serious scenarios for abrupt climate change, which have been singled out for priority research. The U.S. Climate Change Science Program released a report in late December 2008 estimating the gravity of the risk of clathrate destabilization, alongside three other credible abrupt climate change scenarios.
Loss of permafrost
Sea ice loss is correlated with warming of Northern latitudes. This has melting effects on permafrost, both in the sea, and on land. Lawrence et al. suggest that current rapid melting of the sea ice may induce a rapid melting of arctic permafrost. This has consequential effects on methane release, and wildlife. Some studies imply a direct link, as they predict cold air passing over ice is replaced by warm air passing over the sea. This warm air carries heat to the permafrost around the Arctic, and melts it. This permafrost then releases huge quantities of methane. Methane release can be gaseous, but is also transported in solution by rivers.NewScientist states that "Since existing models do not include feedback effects such as the heat generated by decomposition, the permafrost could melt far faster than generally thought."
There is another possible mechanism for rapid methane release. As the Arctic ocean becomes more and more ice free, the ocean absorbs more of the incident energy from the sun. The Arctic ocean becomes warmer than the former ice cover and much more water vapour enters the air. At times when the adjacent land is colder than the sea, this causes rising air above the sea and an off-shore wind as air over the land comes in to replace the rising air over the sea. As the air rises, the dew point is reached and clouds form, releasing latent heat and further reinforcing the buoyancy of the air over the ocean. All this results in air being drawn from the south across the tundra rather than the present situation of cold air flowing toward the south from the cold sinking air over the Arctic ocean. The extra heat being drawn from the south further accelerates the warming of the permafrost and the Arctic ocean with increased release of methane.
Sea ice, and the cold conditions it sustains, serves to stabilise methane deposits on and near the shoreline, preventing the clathrate breaking down and outgassing methane into the atmosphere, causing further warming. Melting of this ice may release large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, causing further warming in a strong positive feedback cycle.
Even with existing levels of warming and melting of the Arctic region, submarine methane releases linked to clathrate breakdown have been discovered, and demonstrated to be leaking into the atmosphere. A 2011 Russian survey off the East Siberian coast found plumes wider than one kilometer releasing methane directly into the atmosphere.
According to monitoring carried out in 2003/2004 by Shakhova et al., the surface layer of shelf water in the East Siberian Sea and Laptev Sea was supersaturated up to 2500% relative to then present average atmospheric methane content of 1.85 ppm. Anomalously high concentrations (up to 154 nM or 4400% supersaturation) of dissolved methane in the bottom layer of shelf water suggest that the bottom layer is somehow affected by near-bottom sources. Considering the possible formation mechanisms of such plumes, their studies indicated thermoabrasion and the effects of shallow gas or gas hydrates release.
The climatic effects of a potential release of methane from ocean clathrates may be significant on timescales of 1–100 thousand years.
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