A team of scientists from a Russian-Swedish research ship observing the Arctic for 15 years from an ecological perspective has released new results that appear to be witnessing the beginning of methane emissions from the “sleeping carbon cycle giant” and the Arctic Ocean. This is worrying because methane is often more harmful than carbon dioxide in the context of climate change. For example, for twenty years, methane released into the atmosphere heats it as much as 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide.
According to the Guardian, the process of releasing methane into the atmosphere was observed along the continental slopes of the eastern Siberian coast, where large deposits of this gas were discovered at a depth of 350 meters in the Laptev Sea near Russia. Scientists worry that this process will significantly increase global warming. And U.S. scientists have gone a step further, the Guardian writes, and the U.S. Geological Survey says the release of greenhouse gases stored in Arctic ice is one of the four most serious scenarios that could cause sudden climate change.
Scientists from the Russian-Swedish team point out that most methane bubbles are currently dissolving in water, but the amount of methane recorded on the water’s surface is four to eight times higher than expected, and part of it has undoubtedly already ended up in the atmosphere. Moreover, at one point on the slope of the Laptev Sea at a depth of about 300 meters, they found methane concentrations of up to 1,600 nanomoles per liter, which is 400 times more than would be expected if the sea and atmosphere were in balance. The consequences of the process have not yet spilled over into society, but it is also a matter of time, more than uncertainty. It should be noted here that, according to some scientists, the process of releasing deposited methane trapped in the Arctic Ocean began 8000 years ago, but in negligible amounts, which now appear to be increasing rapidly due to global warming.
Temperatures in the Arctic Circle are rising twice as fast as the global average, and warming averaged 5 degrees Celsius this year. This means that the water trapped in the soil (i.e., on land) does not freeze completely even below 0 degrees Celsius because it is located between two warm layers. The top layer of soil, known as the active layer, thaws in summer and freezes again in winter, and while it freezes, it experiences a kind of sandwich effect. When temperatures are approximately 0 degrees, the active layer’s top and bottom begin to freeze, while the middle remains isolated. Microorganisms in this frozen middle layer continue to decompose organic matter and begin to release methane.
According to some other scientific research, the warming of the Arctic Ocean melts the ice, and the ocean absorbs even more solar energy and warms up. Thus, the ocean becomes warmer than the former ice sheet, and much more water vapor evaporates into the atmosphere. When the land is colder than the sea (in winter), the warm air rises above the sea and creates a wind in which the colder air from the land sends even more into the atmosphere where dew is created, clouds forming which then release that dew and heat stored in it. For the tundra, this means that instead of the current situation where cold winds blow from the sea to the land (from north to south), new warm winds blow from the land to the sea (south-north), difficult or impossible to freeze the soil. This leads to the further dissolution of the permafrost and the additional release of methane stored in the soil into the atmosphere.
These processes make it difficult for our concrete present to extract shale gas in Siberia and lead to the fires we have witnessed recently. This is a confirmation of the efforts of German scientists and some politicians who oppose Nord Stream 2 because of the damage that this project - since the gas it is supposed to transport was obtained from a shale surface mine - is doing to the climate. In the context of climate change, the beginning of a statistically significant release of methane into the atmosphere represents another limit, not only psychological but also ecological, which has now been crossed, and the political changes necessary for climate rehabilitation are still lacking. Last week’s events in the EU parliament, as well as this week’s news that the World Bank is financing coal-related projects in the background, only confirm the chronic global lack of political and economic will and courage to make decisive moves. However, science has clearly stated in which direction to go next.