How to

10 May 2017

How Arctic Methane Seeps Could be Delaying Global Warming

In terms of news about global warming, we’re always told about rising temperatures and increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions causing harm to the planet. Other greenhouse gases like methane are also said to be harmful and on the rise, but recent research off the coast of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago suggests that methane, released from Arctic Ocean methane seeps could be doing more good than harm.

John Pohlman, a biochemist of the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, discovered that carbon dioxide levels and methane levels in the ocean’s surface water were surprisingly low. He and his team of researchers measured the gas levels as their ship crossed seeps, during constant times of sunshine during the Arctic summer.

The waters directly above the methane seep were found to absorb twice as much carbon dioxide than surrounding waters. This, in theory, means that these isolated spots in the Arctic Ocean could lessen the harmful effects of high CO2 levels and climate change as a whole, with results showing that almost 1900 times more carbon dioxide being absorbed than methane being emitted.  Pohlman comments: “In these limited zones, the atmospheric benefit from CO2 sequestration is about 230 times greater than the warming effect from methane emissions.”

Upon this discovery, Pohlman and his team combined their findings to conclude that CO2 levels being low at the surface were due to water upwelling and photosynthesis processes. The upwelling displays methane bubbles being pushed up by physical force from the sea bed to the surface, which fertilizes phytoplankton blooms, that go on to absorb the carbon dioxide, as they write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The fertilization effect has surprised researcher Thornton, who looked at methane seeps and emissions in the Laptev and East Siberian seas. “There are lots of nutrients in bottom water and bringing that to the surface could certainly [result in] draw down of CO2” he says.

While the results from the study of the Svalbard seeps are telling, there is uncertainty as to whether the effects of methane reflect in other oceans. It’s also important to note that the data was collected during the Arctic summer where sunlight was almost constant, and so there’s curiosity as to whether to results would be translated in other seasons of the year. 

Laura Sewell

An aspiring journalist, Laura is our content writer.  Pop-punk gig-goer and drag queen enthusiast, Laura is working her way into the industry, with an English A -Level and love of writing about anything and everything in tow.