NASA is studying “thermokarsts” in Alaska, lakes that appear as ice melts there.
These lakes emit high levels of methane, a dangerous climate change gas.
As temperatures rise and more of these lakes appear, this could create a negative feedback loop.
Lakes forming in Alaska due to melting permafrost are belching methane into the atmosphere, a NASA scientist said.
These lakes, called thermokarsts, are so full of the climate-damaging gas that they can be seen bubbling to the surface.
More and more of these lakes are appearing as Alaska’s permafrost thaws with warming temperatures and wildfires, according to a 2021 study.
NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) is studying their impact on climate change, according to a NASA blog post published Thursday.
Thermokarsts are born after the ice melts and collapses
Thermokarst lakes occur when permafrost, ground meant to remain frozen year-round, begins to melt. As this happens, massive blocks of ice wedged into the ground also melt, which causes the ground to collapse several feet.
“Years ago, the ground was about ten feet 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 works with NASA’s ABOVE project to study the effect of Big Trail Lake on climate change.
As water invades the sinkholes left behind, so does 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 decompose,” Walter Anthony said.
“As they decompose it, they release methane gas,” he said.
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 the newest lakes, such as Big Trail, which appeared less than 50 years ago, emit high levels of the 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 poke in the ice, as seen in the video below.
Methane is a destructive greenhouse gas
Although carbon dioxide (CO2) remains the main long-term driver of the climate crisis, methane leaks have become an important issue in helping to control climate change in the short term.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning it keeps heat emitted from the ground trapped in the atmosphere instead of letting the 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 reduce the effects of climate change in the short term and rapidly reduce the rate of warming,” NOAA chief Rick Spinrad said previously.
Methane “also contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, which causes about 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, methane pipeline gas leaks are increasingly targeted because they can be detected from space and are easily repaired.
However, natural sources such as wetlands can also contribute heavily to methane, according to NOAA. Understanding how they might proceed is important because rising temperatures could set off a “feedback loop” that “would be largely beyond human ability to control,” NOAA said. in April.
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