Permanently frozen Arctic soil, known as permafrost, is thawing and threatening to release massive amounts of the powerful methane, a greenhouse gas. If that happens, it could quickly worsen the climate crisis. a New research at the frontiers in earth sciences Large concentrations of methane were discovered in several wells. Scientists point out that deep methane can easily migrate to the surface when the permafrost thaws.
Permafrost, or permanently frozen soil, is widespread in the Far North, including Svalbard. While the upper permafrost layers have been well studied, the processes occurring at their base and the effects of the underlying geology have not been adequately studied. More than a century of drilling in Svalbard has revealed common accumulations of natural gas at the base of the permafrost. A troubling example is methane, a greenhouse gas with a higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. When released into the atmosphere, methane contributes significantly to global warming.
Permafrost acts as a natural storehouse of methane. As permafrost thaws due to rising temperatures, organic matter decomposes, releasing stored methane. This creates a vicious cycle where methane release contributes to further warming, leading to more permafrost melting and additional methane emissions. As the permafrost thaws in the Arctic, there is a risk that the release of trapped methane could cause positive feedback effects.
Although little methane appears to be escaping at the moment, this could change quickly as glaciers continue to retreat and permafrost melts.
A new attempt to systematically analyze the storage and distribution of methane in Svalbard discovered significant concentrations of methane when examining eight wells drilled by fossil fuel companies in the local permafrost. The results suggest that deep methane, which exists two meters below the surface, is not difficult to find and can easily move to the surface when ‘opened’. This situation may also apply to other parts of the Arctic region. Despite more than 50 years of drilling by fossil fuel companies, this is the first study to systematically analyze how much methane is at the base of Svalbard’s permafrost.
The exact amount of methane in permafrost and its release rate are still unknown. As the permafrost thaws, it could release large amounts of methane, but the extent of its potential impact is still under investigation. This is crucial for accurate climate modeling. Newly released research in Svalbard shows that currently, permafrost in valleys acts as an effective barrier against deep methane, while permafrost at higher elevations forms weaker barriers. This is probably due to the formation of permafrost in the valleys by the water table, creating a thick, impermeable layer of ice. Higher elevations, which contain less water, have thinner, more irregular ice. The researchers concluded that Svalbard’s subsurface fluid systems are out of balance. Although little methane appears to be escaping at the moment, this could change quickly as glaciers continue to retreat and permafrost melts.
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