Thawing Permafrost Fuels Worries Over Global Warming

A view out the window of the research aircraft Polar 5 during a flight over the Mackenzie Delta. (Photo by T. Sachs, GFZ)

(CN) — A new scientific study on thawing permafrost in the Mackenzie Delta in Northern Canada shows the phenomenon could lead to rising methane emissions both from natural production of the gas and the release of escaping subsurface fossil fuels.

The study in the journal Scientific Reports was released early Wednesday morning with contributions from scientists from the German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ, the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research and U.S. partners.

The authors concluded that melting permafrost soils in the Arctic contributes to a warming climate in two ways, naturally producing more methane gas at the surface, and the thawing subsurface allowing geologically old methane to escape into the atmosphere.

Climate change triggers both natural production of the gas and stronger greenhouse gas emissions in the 10,000-square-kilometer area of the Delta.

Arctic permafrost caps frozen material over mineral resources and greenhouse gases that escape as global temperatures increase and permafrost thaws. Scientists have warned that the effect of permafrost thawing and increased methane emissions could foster and accelerate catastrophic changes in climate.

“We found strong emissions solely where the permafrost is discontinuous, meaning parts where the permafrost contains areas that are thawed permanently,” said lead author Katrin Kohnert. “We think that the methane comes predominantly from deeper geologic sources and not from recent microbial activity close to the surface.”

Though scientists found hot spots of the potent greenhouse gas in roughly 1 percent of the Delta, they estimate that they account for 17 percent of methane emissions each year.

GFZ scientist Torsten Sachs led a team that measured gas concentrations during two flight campaigns in the summer 2012 and 2013. The team then created a methane flux map of the area that shows hot spots in the Delta.

“We wanted to find out how much methane is released in a region and were looking for spatial patterns in gas emissions,” Kohnert said.

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