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Siberian Methane Release is on the Rise, and That's VERY Frightening

Dec 31, 2014 01:49 AM EST

The "End of the World" in the Sleeping Land: that's what people have called the Yamal Peninsula, a relatively desolate region of Siberia, for decades. This region has gained a lot of fame recently as the home of massive and semi-mysterious holes in the ground. Now it will gain some infamy as well, as researchers are finding that more and more harmful methane gas is escaping from the region's thawing permafrost.

That's at least according to a pair of studies recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research  and Geophysical Research Letters, which look into the extent of permafrost on the Siberian coastal floor and how it is connected to the significant release of the greenhouse gas methane - a gas that is capable of trapping heat in our atmospheres with 20 times the efficiency of carbon dioxide.

Siberia is commonly referred to as the "Sleeping Land" because it's rather still - with its soil locked up in permafrost that, as the name implies, is not likely to melt.

"Terrestrial Arctic is always frozen, average ground temperatures are low in Siberia which maintains permafrost down to 600-800 meters ground depth. But the ocean is another matter. Bottom water temperature is usually close to or above zero," Alexey Portnov, from The Arctic University of Norway, explained in a statement via the Center for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Climate and Environment.

"Theoretically, therefore, we could never have thick permafrost under the sea. However," he added, "20,000 years ago, during the last glacial maximum, the sea level dropped to minus 120 meters. It means that today´s shallow shelf area was land. It was Siberia. And Siberia was frozen. The permafrost on the ocean floor today was established in that period."

Now, especially with changing trade winds, currents, and warming waters, that submerged permafrost is melting faster and faster. And while the consequential release of methane may help promote climate change, the expert is quick to add that this wasn't caused by mankind's meddling with nature.

"The permafrost is thawing from two sides. The interior of the Earth is warm and is warming the permafrost from the bottom up. It is called geothermal heat flux and it is happening all the time, regardless of human influence," said Portnov.

However, he adds, "if the temperature of the oceans increases by two degrees as suggested by some reports, it will accelerate the thawing to the extreme. A warming climate could lead to an explosive gas release from the shallow areas."

This, Portnov and his colleagues propose, could have also helped facilitate some of the mysterious craters seen back on the Yamal mainland, where massive pockets of released methane could have forced themselves and/or ice formations straight through hundreds of feet of earth. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: Andrey Naumenko, OGTRK "Yamal-Region"]

However, if that's true, it's also very bad news for climatologists.

"If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we're f'd," Jason Box, a widely published climatologist, tweeted back in August, when it was first revealed that this could be occurring in the East Siberian Arctic Ocean.

That's because ocean floor methane normally releases from vents and leaking hydrates at a slower rate, allowing marine life to absorb the gas before it can reach our atmosphere. However, if it's releasing explosively, experts may be underestimating how much greenhouse gas has been accumulating in our atmosphere.

And that would just add to bad news from the northwestern hemisphere, where Pacific ocean hydrates have been found to be leaking methane far more intensely than expected.

"The thawing of permafrost on the ocean floor is an ongoing process, likely to be exaggerated by the global warming of the world´s ocean," Portnov said.

This could set the world into a vicious cycle of climbing carbon and ocean temperature levels - one that experts were not prepared for. However, just how extensively these releases will impact climate in the long run remains to be seen.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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