For the first time, scientists have confirmed that methane leaking is from Antarctica’s sea bed. They say the methane is likely escaping into the atmosphere.
According to the EPA, in 2018, methane accounted for about 10% of U.S. human-driven greenhouse gas emissions. But the Antarctica leak may be beyond human influence or control. Scientists believe that immense quantities of methane are stored under Antarctica’s seafloor. They don’t know the leak’s cause, but global warming probably isn’t to blame, since the Ross Sea has not yet warmed significantly.
Decaying, thousands-of-years-old algae deposits likely create the methane. Usually, microbes consume undersea methane before it reaches the atmosphere. But the ecosystem around the Antarctica leak has been slow to produce the methane-eating microbes, making for an inadequate methane biofilter beneath the vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Current climate change models don’t allow for this lag time between seepage and microbe development, which could lead researchers to overly-optimistic conclusions.
Divers first noticed the methane seep in 2011, but scientists didn’t start investigating until 2016, studying it in detail both onsite and in the laboratory.
Scientists regard the methane release from permafrost regions and frozen underwater stores as a key indicator that global warming can no longer be stopped. “The methane cycle is absolutely something that we as a society need to be concerned about,” said Andrew Thurber, the Oregon State University scientist who led the research. “I find it incredibly concerning.”
The new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, places the methane seep at a site called Cinder Cones in McMurdo Sound. The patch is about 70 meters long.
“The delay [in microbes consuming methane] is the most important finding,” Thurber said. “It is not good news. It took more than five years for the microbes to begin to show up and even then there was still methane rapidly escaping from the sea floor.”
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