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A mysterious crater on the Yamal peninsula in Russia was discovered last month and others have been spotted since. Scientists worry that melting permafrost and underground methane pockets created the fissure, a possible sign of feared "feedback loops" related to global warming. (Image: Public domain)

Bubbles in the Sea, Craters in Earth Spark New Methane Worries

Though no direct ties exist between strange craters discovered in northern Russia and new documentation of underwater plumes, evidence mounts that buried methane could be serious threat

Jon Queally

The headline in Nature World News on Tuesday was not subtle.

'We're F'd,' it stated caustically.

The subject? Methane plumes rising from the seabed witnessed by ocean researchers  in the Arctic in recent weeks.

Seen by a team of international scientists led by Professor Örjan Gustafsson from Stockholm University travelling in the Eastern Siberian Arctic Ocean, the release of methane has long been feared by climatologists who suggest that a warming planet could trigger a mass melting of what are called methane hydrates—a frozen form of potent greenhouse gas methane trapped in permafrost or beneath the ocean floor.

As the article in the NWN notes, the observations by Gustafsson's team—measured by sophisticated sensor equipment on their ship—were surprising "not because the plumes were unexpected, but because of their concentration."

Writing on his own blog, Gustaffson writes that he and his fellow researchers are assessing "these methane releases in greater detail than ever before to substantially improve our collective understanding of the methane sources and the functioning of the system. This is information that is crucial if we are to be able to provide scientific estimations of how these methane releases may develop in the future."

Referred to as a "ticking time bomb" by some who study the subject, methane has a much more powerful global warming effect than carbon and the evidence continues to mount that areas which hold huge deposits of the compound are becoming increasingly unstable.

Though innocuous-looking, this short video taken by the crew shows methane rising in the ocean:

The recent discovery of strange craters in northern Russia has also entered the scientific debate about the dangers of methane, with scientists suggesting that melting permafrost and a enormous release of the gas could be the culprit.

As the journal Nature reports:

A mystery crater spotted in the frozen Yamal peninsula in Siberia [in July] was probably caused by methane released as permafrost thawed, researchers in Russia say.

Air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.

Since the hole was spotted in mid-July by a helicopter pilot, conjecture has abounded about how the 30-metre-wide crater was formed — a gas or missile explosion, a meteorite impact and alien involvement have all been suggested.

But Plekhanov and his team believe that it is linked to the abnormally hot Yamal summers of 2012 and 2013, which were warmer than usual by an average of about 5°C. As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground.

Speaking with Channel 3 News in New Zealand, applied sciences professor Allan Blackman described what happened with the crater in Yamal this way: "An enormous great burst, bubble, whatever you want to call it, of methane just came up and blew a hole in the surface of the Earth."

"If the permafrost starts melting and the trapped methane is getting released," Blackman continued, "then it could be a very great problem for climate change."

Meanwhile, however, Jason Box—the scientist who last week tweeted the original phrase, "If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we're f'd."—has issued caution about equating the strange craters in Yamal with the observations seen in the East Arctic Siberian Ocean.

"I never connected the mysterious Siberian holes to anything," Box tweeted after some reporting equated the two. And later added, "I have no idea about the holes."


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