(ORDO NEWS) — Lakes appearing in Alaska due to melting permafrost are “releasing” methane into the atmosphere, said a scientist working with NASA.
These lakes, called thermokarsts, are so full of climate-damaging gas that you can see it escaping to the surface.
There are more and more of these lakes as permafrost melts in Alaska due to rising temperatures and more wildfires, according to a 2021 study.
NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project is studying their impact on climate change, according to a NASA blog published Thursday.
Thermokarst lakes are born after thawing and the collapse of the Earth
Thermokarst lakes appear when permafrost – land that should stay frozen throughout the year – begins to melt.
At the same time, massive blocks of ice pressed into the ground also melt, causing the ground to collapse by several feet.
“Many years ago the ground was about three meters higher and it was a spruce forest,” says Katie Walter Anthony, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, describing a thermokarst called Big Trail Lake in Alaska.
Walter Anthony is working with NASA’s ABoVE project to study Big Trail Lake’s impact on climate change.
As the water seeps into the sinkholes that have been left behind, so do the bacteria.
“At Big Trail Lake, it’s like opening a freezer door for the first time and leaving all the food in the freezer to be decomposed by microbes,” says Walter Anthony.
“As they decompose, they release methane gas,” she said.
There are millions of lakes in the Arctic, but most of them are thousands of years old and no longer emit much gas, according to a NASA blog.
Only newer lakes, such as the Big Trail, less than 50 years old, emit large amounts of gas.
And this is far from a small number.
Insider has previously reported that these types of lakes emit so much methane that they are easy to set on fire after quickly piercing through the ice, as shown in the video below.
While carbon dioxide (CO2) remains a major long-term contributor to the climate crisis, methane leaks have become a hot topic for combating climate change in the short term.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps the heat radiated from the earth in the atmosphere instead of letting the earth cool down.
It is much more powerful than CO2, about 30 times more efficient at retaining heat. But it also dissipates faster than CO2, which lingers in the atmosphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use now to reduce the effects of climate change in the near term and quickly reduce the rate of warming,” Rick Spinrad, head of NOAA, said earlier.
Methane also “contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, which causes about 500,000 premature deaths worldwide every year,” Spinrad said.
Human activities such as agriculture, fuel extraction, and landfills are major contributors to methane emissions.
For example, gas leaks from methane pipelines are increasingly the focus of attention because they can be seen from space and easily fixed.
But natural sources like swamps can also be big sources of methane, according to NOAA.
Understanding how they can progress is important because rising temperatures could trigger a “feedback loop” that is “largely beyond human control,” NOAA said in April.
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