Scientists in Siberia have discovered an area of sea that is "boiling" with methane, with bubbles that can be scooped from the water with buckets. Researchers on an expedition to the East Siberian Sea said the "methane fountain" was unlike anything they had seen before, with concentrations of the gas in the region to be six to seven times higher than the global average.
The team, led by Igor Semiletov, from Tomsk Polytechnic University in Russia, traveled to an area of the Eastern Arctic previously known to produce methane fountains. They were studying the environmental consequences of permafrost thawing beneath the ocean.
Permafrost is ground that is permanently frozen—in some cases for tens of thousands of years. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, permafrost currently covers about 8.7 million square miles of the Northern Hemisphere.
Locked within in the permafrost is organic material. When the ground thaws, this material starts to break down and, as it does, it releases methane—a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. With global temperatures increasing, scientists are concerned the warming will result in more permafrost thawing, causing more methane to be released, leading to even more warming. This is known as a positive feedback loop.
A huge proportion of Siberia is covered in permafrost, but this is starting to change. Over recent years, scientists working in remote regions have started documenting changes to the landscape thought to be related to it thawing, including huge craters. In 2016, footage emerged of the ground wobbling "like jelly."
But permafrost is also present under the ocean. In 2017, scientists announced they had discovered hundreds of craters at the bottom of the Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia. The craters had formed from methane building up then exploding suddenly when the pressure got too high.
In the latest expedition to chart methane emissions coming from the ocean, researchers analyzed the water around Bennett Island, taking samples of sea water and sediments. In one area, however, they found something unexpected—an extremely sharp increase in the concentration of atmospheric methane. According to a statement from Tomsk Polytechnic University, it was six to seven times higher than average.
They then noticed an area of water around four to five square meters that was "boiling with methane bubbles," the statement said. This could be scooped out with buckets, the researchers said. After identifying the fountain, the team was able to take samples directly from it. Methane levels around the fountain were nine times higher than average global concentrations.
"This is the most powerful gas fountain I've ever seen," Semiletov said, according to a translation from the Moscow Times. "No one has ever recorded anything like this before."
After identifying the fountain, the team was able to take samples directly from it. Methane levels around the fountain were nine times higher than average global concentrations. The following day they found another methane fountain and conducted a comprehensive analysis of it.
Sergey Nikiforov, a journalist who took part in the expedition, said there will now be more research and experiments in this part of the ocean: "The work to study the secrets of the Arctic seas...continues," he said in a statement.