Scientists recently discovered an active leak of methane gas coming from the sea floor of Antarctica. These findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society scientific journal, and are worrying many researchers who know that methane gas is likely going to accelerate the process of global heating even more so than it already is.
Methane is one of the greenhouse gases that leads to an acceleration in global warming; much like carbon dioxide does. In normal conditions, when the gas is present under layers of ice, microorganisms living within the ice consume it and slow down the process of it being leaked back into the atmosphere. However, the damage of climate change that the planet has already endured has hindered the effectiveness of this process in Antarctica.
The methane leak referred to in the findings initially appeared back in 2011 and, at the time, the microorganisms present took five years to appear and consume a majority of the gas. Now, researchers found that gas is still leaking into the atmosphere despite the presence of these microorganisms. Dr. Andrew Thurer, the oceanographer who led the study, is concerned about these findings, and claims it could take up to a decade for the gas to be consumed, and by then it may be too late.
“Vast amounts of methane are stored under sea ice. Antarctica is estimated to contain as much as a quarter of Earth’s marine methane.”
The impact of excessive methane leaks in the planet’s atmosphere is extremely damaging. As global temperatures continue to increase, ice caps/glaciers will continue to melt, and sea levels will rise. That lack of ice is what leads to methane leaks, as there’s less protective layers to contain the methane and house the microorganisms necessary to consume the gas.
NASA warned the world in 2018 that the thawing of ice in the Arctic would lead to gas leaks that will cause the planet’s climate to rise at an even more alarming rate than what it’s currently at. Scientists have also long considered the release of methane specifically from ice as a “tipping point in climate change,” which essentially means the effects of global warming have reached an irreversible level.
Until now, there have been no active methane leaks in Antarctica, and while scientists did confirm that this particular leak came from an unknown source likely unrelated to climate change, its presence it’s still worrisome.
The only silver lining, according to Thurer, is that these findings can work to deepen climate scientists’ understanding of the way that methane is “consumed and released in Antarctica, something which very little was known before.” Gaining this understanding in Antarctica specifically is key, especially considering the presence of methane could be extremely detrimental to the future of Earth’s climate.
“Our results suggest that the accuracy of future global climate models may be improved by considering the time it will take for microbial communities to respond to novel methane input.”
While research on microorganisms absorbing methane gas is a timely process, gaining these insights can help researchers understand how these organisms work, and could potentially lead to the invention of some sort of man-made version of the organisms which can better aide the process of absorbing methane in melting ice layers in the Arctic/Antarctica.