Underneath the Arctic Ocean sits a large reserve of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Understanding how much of that is making it to the atmosphere is an important but relatively new area of research. The latest findings published on Sunday in Nature indicate that more could be escaping than previously thought, thanks in part to stormy weather.
The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a shallow swath of land underneath the East Siberian Sea. It stretches for 2 million square miles and contains large deposits of methane hydrates, which are frozen deposits of highly concentrated methane.
When the hydrates melt, they turn into methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane hydrates are found throughout the world’s oceans but generally under hundreds of feet of water. That means as they melt, there’s more time for the gas to disperse and mix with the surrounding ocean water. But because the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is much shallower, with an average depth of 150 feet, there’s more of a chance for that methane gas to reach the surface. That’s why understanding how much methane is stored in the shelf and if those stores are stable is so important to climate researchers.
Some scientists suggested earlier this year that a massive release of methane from the shelf, referred to as a “methane bomb,” could cause abrupt climate change and cost the global economy $60 trillion. That claim has been met with much skepticism, in part because the amount of methane the shelf is currently releasing and the conditions it’s stored under aren’t fully understood. The remoteness, logistics and inclement weather have impeded scientists’ research access to the region until fairly recently and data has been sparse.
That, however, is beginning to change.