The melting of the ice in Alaska is forming new lakes full of bacteria that “burp” methane into the atmosphere, warns a NASA scientist

Themokarst lakes found in Alaska are so full of methane that the gas rises to the surface in large bubbles.NASA / Sophie Bates

  • NASA is studying “thermokarsts” in Alaska, lakes that appear when the permafrost melts there.

  • These lakes can release high levels of methane, a dangerous gas for climate change.

  • As temperatures rise and more of these lakes appear, this could create a negative feedback loop.

Lakes appearing in Alaska due to melting permafrost are “belching” methane into the atmosphere, a scientist working with NASA has said.

These lakes, called thermokarsts, are so full of the climate-damaging gas that it can be seen bubbling up on the surface.

More and more of these lakes are appearing as Alaska’s permafrost thaws with rising temperatures and increased wildfires, according to a 2021 study.

NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project is studying its effect on climate change, according to a NASA blog post published Thursday.

You can light these lakes on fire

Thermokarsts can be so full of methane that they can catch fire.University of Alaska Fairbanks

Thermokarsts are born after the melting and collapse of the earth

Thermokarst lakes appear when permafrost, ground that must remain frozen throughout the year, begins to melt. As this happens, the massive blocks of ice that are embedded in the ground also melt, causing the ground to collapse several feet.

“Years ago, the ground was about three meters higher and it was a spruce forest,” said Katey Walter Anthony, an ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, describing a thermokarst called Big Trail Lake in Alaska.

Walter Anthony has been working with NASA’s ABoVE project to study the effect of Big Trail Lake on climate change.

As the water invades the remaining sinkholes, so do the bacteria.

“At Big Trail Lake, it’s like opening your freezer door for the first time and giving all the food in your freezer to microbes to break down,” said Walter Anthony.

“As they break it down, they give off methane gas,” he said.

Katie Walter Antony in a kayak on Big Trail Lake in Alaska.

Walter Antony is seen in a kayak on Big Trail Lake in Alaska.Sofia Bates/NASA

There are millions of lakes in the Arctic, but most are thousands of years old and no longer emit much gas, according to NASA’s blog post.

Only newer lakes, like Big Trail, which appeared less than 50 years ago, emit high levels of gas.

And this is far from a small amount. Insider previously reported that these types of lakes emit so much methane that it’s easy to ignite them after a quick hit on the ice, as you can see in the video below.

Methane is a devastating greenhouse gas

Although carbon dioxide (CO2) remains the main long-term driver of the climate crisis, methane leakage has become a hot topic to help control climate change in the short term.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning it keeps heat radiating from the ground trapped in the atmosphere instead of letting Earth cool.

It is much more powerful than CO2, about 30 times more effective at trapping heat. But it also dissipates faster than CO2, which remains in the atmosphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to lessen the impacts of climate change in the near term and rapidly reduce the rate of warming,” NOAA director Rick Spinrad said earlier.

Methane also “contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, which causes approximately 500,000 premature deaths each year worldwide,” Spinrad said.

Human activities such as agriculture, fuel exploitation, and landfills are major contributors to methane emissions. For example, gas leaks from methane pipelines are a growing target because they can be detected from space and easily repaired.

But natural sources like wetlands can also be big contributors of methane, according to NOAA. Understanding how they might progress is important because rising temperatures could cause a “feedback loop” that would be “largely beyond the ability of humans to control,” NOAA said in April.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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