The Arctic Lakes Where Methane Makes Water Roar in a Violent Rolling Boil

Across the Arctic, there are lakes where the water appears to boil. Where "drunk" forests crash into the water. Where huge sinkholes appear following mammoth explosions—one witness to such an event said it was "like the Earth was breathing."

The cause of these natural phenomena is methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential around 30 times higher than carbon dioxide over 100 years. Methane is created via an array of natural and anthropogenic processes. Farming is a major contributor, as are landfills and coal mines. For natural sources, it comes from both land and sea.

One specific methane source—permafrost—is becoming less and less stable. Permafrost is ground that is permanently frozen, in some cases for hundreds of thousands of years. Locked within this frozen ground is organic matter. If the ground thaws, the organic matter defrosts and starts to break down, releasing methane in the process.

Katey Walter Anthony has spent her career understanding methane emissions, looking at Arctic lakes that have formed via permafrost thaw. She has written about her life and work, from the Siberian tundra to the Alaskan wilderness, in her new book Chasing Lakes: Love, Science, and the Secrets of the Arctic.

Walter is professor and aquatic ecosystem ecologist at the Water & Environmental Research Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Northern Engineering. Her work recently featured in the PBS NOVA film Arctic Sinkholes, which aired in February.

"They look like the water is boiling," she told Newsweek. "Like there's this violent rolling boil, sometimes there's a sound and so it can be almost spooky."

Katey Walter Anthony
Scientist Katey Walter Anthony and her book, "Chasing Lakes: Love, Science and the Secrets of the Arctic." Walter Anthony has been researching methane emissions from Arctic lakes for decades. Dr. M. Sanjayan/HarperOne

Walter Anthony discovered lakes were emitting methane while working in Siberia as a graduate student. She had been setting methane traps to understand how much was coming out of Siberian lakes. "I could see that methane was coming out but they were not going in my traps," she said. "At my wit's end, one year I decided to stay in Siberia for the winter—a lot of scientists go back to their universities in the fall.

"Everything froze up. I went out on the ice with my monitors and what we saw, my mouth dropped open. We saw bubbles of ice in the lake that was pitch black. There were these white beautiful clusters of bubbles. They were not everywhere. They were point sources and they were very strong ... It was like looking up at the sky at night, and most of the sky is black. Well on a clear night you can see stars and that's what methane was like in the lake. There were thousands of points that were bubbling."

Walter Anthony had realized that to get a gauge of how much methane was coming out of the lakes, she had to find the point source. "That was a Eureka moment," she said.

methane bubbles
Bubbles of methane locked in a frozen lake. Walter Anthony discovered these bubbles when she spent a winter in Siberia tracing methane in lakes. Getty Images

She and her husband are now tracking methane lakes across the Arctic. The vastness and remoteness of the land means it is unclear just how many of these permafrost lakes are out there. It is not even clear whether new lakes are forming, or it is only now scientists are finding them. But to understand methane emissions—from all sources across the world—is hugely important in figuring out what role they may play in future climate change.

The idea of a methane feedback loop has been around for decades. As Earth warms, permafrost thaws, releasing more methane. As more methane is released, the more the Earth warms, thawing more permafrost and releasing more methane. And so on.

Walter Anthony is clear. Methane is not a major player in the efforts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celcius on pre-industrial levels. While carbon dioxide is less potent than methane, far more is being released into the atmosphere. It also has a longer lifespan. While methane stays in the atmosphere for around a decade, carbon dioxide can hang around for between 300 and 1,000 years.

"We're not going to have a time bomb," she said of the permafrost thaw. "It's not catastrophic, but it is an important headwind." The problem is that if global warming is not curbed, it will be "enough to open the freezer door."

"And a freezer only holds so much food. So does the permafrost, There's a finite amount of frozen carbon in permafrost, and if you open that and it decomposes it generates greenhouse gasses.

"There's no way to refreeze the permafrost ... And that's, well, concerning."

yamal siberia crater
A crater in Siberia filled with water. Permafrost thaw is causing the Arctic landscape to change. Getty Images

Walter Anthony is now working to map permafrost thaw lakes in the Arctic, developing remote sensing methods to do so. Her latest technique involves a synthetic radar that can see through snow and clouds, providing a bright signal where bubbles and gas are present. Once detected, these lakes then need to be confirmed with field work.

It is through these trips she says she is witnessing the world changing firsthand.

"As permafrost warms it thaws. Methane comes out and I see that in lakes, but it's only really been in the last five years where I am like: 'Wow, the ground around me is changing so fast.' It did not look like this a few years ago," she said. "The places where permafrost was [thawing] on the edges of lakes, now my path to get to the lake is degrading. Huge gullies are forming lakes, where it used to be land.

"It feels like things are going faster. Of course we need a long record and we need all those paleo records to put it in context. But I'm seeing dramatic changes that feel like an acceleration."

Walter Anthony said some models indicate there could be an abrupt change in methane emissions this century. Data from NOAA shows atmospheric methane levels were at their highest on record in 2021 for the second year in a row, the reason for which isn't entirely clear.

Studies suggest that when the Earth moved from the Ice Age to the current interglacial period we are living in, methane emissions were about 10 times higher than what we see today. Walter Anthony's research at lakes indicates emissions are increasing, which could mean we've already started on that trajectory.

Over the coming decades, she said, we will be able to see if the models are right.

"We are standing at the threshold," she said.

This story has been updated to include Walter Anthony's affiliation.