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Scientists Close in on the Cause of Arctic Methane Leaks

It’s been called the Methane Bomb — a stash of gas buried under the Arctic seafloor whose heat-trapping power is much greater, molecule for molecule, than the carbon dioxide people usually worry about. As climate change forces the Arctic to warm, experts warn that methane could escape, speeding global warming. They can’t predict when the great escape might begin, however, or how fast it might proceed. They can’t even rule out the possibility that it might have already started. So they’ve been cruising Arctic waters to get a better handle on where things stand.

Now they’ve got one. According to Christian Berndt, of the GEOMAR/Helmholz Center for Ocean Research, he and his colleagues have known since 2008 that methane is leaking from the ocean bottom near Spitzbergen, an island in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. But thanks to a research cruise this past summer, they’ve got reason to believe that global warming could be part of the reason, if not the sole culprit. “We have no proof,” he said in a recent interview. “But we have several lines of evidence that fit well [with this possibility].”

View of Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard Archipelago in Norway. Credit: flickr/Mark Garten-United Nations  

The expedition started from the well-established fact that an enormous amount of methane is frozen into a kind of ice known as methane hydrate, buried in seafloor sediments and containing perhaps twice as much carbon as all the world’s fossil-fuel reserves combined. As long as the hydrates stay cold and pressurized by the overlying sediments, they’re stable. If they warm, they’re in danger of breaking down and releasing the gas into the atmosphere

It was that danger that sent Berndt into the Arctic in 2008.  “We knew that the bottom water has warmed here,” he said, “so we knew it was a place where change could be happening.” The only way to make sure, however, was to drill into the sea floor, and that’s why they went back this summer.

The first thing they found seemed reassuring: carbonate minerals created by interactions with the methane and surrounding material. If the methane came from the breakdown of hydrates, the minerals would be young, since the seafloor has only warmed recently. But they weren’t.

“We need to do further testing,” Berndt said, “but at a wild guess, I’d say they’re 2 or 300 years old at least. They could be 10,000 years old.” Methane has been escaping, in short, for far longer than humans have been affecting the climate.

But they also found that the mineral byproducts of methane leakage came in concentrated pockets at different depths. If methane were coming out steadily from some reservoir deep under the sea floor, the minerals should become gradually more abundant the deeper you look.

Credit: NASA/JPL

Beyond that, scientists already know that methane hydrates are present in this area. It would be quite a coincidence, Berndt said, to find methane emissions in a place where the water is warming and where there are known hydrate deposits — and to have those three things be completely unrelated.

One possible explanation; Berndt thinks that two things may be going on at once: a slow leak of methane that’s been going on for hundreds of years, and also the beginning of the hydrate breakup that scientists have been worried about.  

The only way to find out for sure is to examine hydrate ices in the lab, and that’s not so easy to do. If you simply pull them out of the sea floor, Bernd said, the drop in pressure as they come to the surface can make them break down in just a few minutes. So next year, he and his team are returning to the Arctic with a drilling machine that can extract samples while keeping them under pressure.

Only then will it be possible to say for sure whether a potentially troubling new chapter in the story of global warming has begun or not.

Related content 
Antarctic Methane: A New Factor in the Climate Equation
Scientists Defending Against The Methane Bomb
Much Ado About Methane


By Jack Burton
on October 8th, 2012

Methane could be escaping”  The Russian academy of science discovered kilometer wide methane plumes in the arctic seas off of the coast of North Eastern Siberia. They were described as being shocked by the scale of the plumes and their number. Previous plume in this area were noted as being several meters across, now they are over a kilometer across. I suspect methane is escaping, not “could be escaping”. Or do Russia and it’s seas really not count in the global climate story? The cold war is over, we really do live in a world where Russia is part of reality now!

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By Craig Dillon (Chicago, Il 60607)
on January 2nd, 2013

Spitzbergen? Sorry, wrong place to look. Cannot get meaningful results. You need to look at the hydrates that are located in areas that were traditionally covered by sea ice all year round—like the East Siberian Sea, or the Leptev Sea, or the Chuchki Sea. 

Secondly, it is the hydrates in those seas that will be under the greatest stress due to the recent loss of summer sea ice in those seas.  The waters of those seas are likely rising in tempertures due to the summer sun. Now, the question is does the solar heating go to the depth of the hydrates? How fast will the bottom waters in those seas increase? 

Answer those questions, and you will be able to answer how much CH4 will be coming from those shallow seas, which we already know contain huge quantities of hydrates. 

Its a pity that climate scientists often have to settle for less than optimal sites due to budger constraints. I am sure he chose Spitzbergen area due to ease of access and low cost. But, since that island is always ice free in summers, that makes it an inadequate research area regarding methane hydrates. At least, IMHO.

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By Vroon Rameckers (Glimmen NL EU)
on June 19th, 2013

We have to save this world and we can do that, together!!!!!!

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By laela tambawang (62)
on June 20th, 2013

save the world

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By brianschafer (sydney new south wales australia 2230)
on June 24th, 2013

the climate control is of the utmost importance and must not be ignored

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By Peter Clarke (Kempsey / New South Wales / 2440)
on July 1st, 2013

Most of us are concentrating on how the next Federal government will effect our standard of living, income, building more infrastructure, better education, delivering stable government, generating two million new jobs etc, etc. My observations are that Global warming has been grossly ignored by the politicians who are the ones who have the power to do something about the looming problem. I feel that this problem should be brought to their notice, perhaps through facebook ?

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By Douglas E. Wight (Greenfield, MA 01301)
on August 29th, 2013

‘We, the people,’ of the world need to create a plan to save all the ice and snow in the North Polar region and the South Polar Region.  How about invention a “cooling pad” that could be hooked up to wind turbines toi operate and prevent the ice cap and glaciers from melting?  I have the ability to organize the necessary teams of young people to go in and hook up these giant “cooling pads” once they have been built and dropped into place.  I have presented my idea to MIT for review.  What do you guys think of this idea or some other?  Warm regards,

Douglas E. Wight, founder and president
National Alliance Of Concerned Americans For The Wellbeing Of all People And Earth

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