1 September 2011, 16:08

Methane closely watched by scientists

Methane closely watched by scientists

Russian ocean experts are going to assess the scale of methane emissions from the bottom of Arctic seas. They will spend 45 days on board the Academic Lavrentiev ship to determine the amount of gas coming into the atmosphere from the permafrost.

Russian ocean experts are going to assess the scale of methane emissions from the bottom of Arctic seas. They will spend 45 days on board the Academic Lavrentiev ship to determine the amount of gas coming into the atmosphere from the permafrost. Alongside Russian scientists, the expedition to get under way on September 2nd will also involve specialists from various US scientific centers. 

This expedition is a logical continuation of studies that have been carried out in the region by Russian scientists for over 15 years already. None out of the 27 expeditions of different scale held here were aimed at assessing methane emissions. A statement to that effect was voiced by Igor Semiletov of the Pacific Oceanological Institute in an interview with the Voice of Russia.

"This has become the first expedition dedicated to revealing the scale of methane emissions and accompanying processes. We assume, even though this needs to be clarified, that this results from the degradation of underwater permafrost which is no longer acting as a shell preventing methane from penetrating into the atmosphere from deep gas hydrate springs," Igor Semiletov says.

Until recently, it was believed that underwater permafrost, 90 percent of which is located in the seas of Eastern Arctic, is stable and blocks the ascendant movement of any gases or liquids. But that is not exactly the case, Russian scientists found out, estimating that the region’s sea shelf spews as much methane as registered in all other seas taken together. Even this data may be lower than reality and needs to be verified. For this purpose, the key objective for those involved in the expedition is to examine the entire shelf of the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea and the Russian part of the Chukotsk Sea. This is the widest and shallowest shelf of the World Ocean. The thickness of its sedimentary strata accounts for nearly 20 kilometers, while the hydrocarbon potential of this area is equal to three or even five Persian Gulfs, Igor Semiletov goes on to say.

We are living through a warm period, whereas during the Ice Age, the global ocean level is known to have been about 120 meters below what we have today. This means that it used to be a mainland tens of thousands of years ago. Temperatures inside that permafrost were 10-12 degrees higher than now. At the beginning of the warm period, the ocean level was constantly rising, eventually flooding this up to 800-meter-thick permafrost. In the course of time, it started coming to a thermodynamic balance with bottom water temperatures standing at about 1 degree below zero. Underwater permafrost is supposedly degrading nowadays, with a number of islands being formed on it. There are no doubts therefore that gas migration canals do exist after all, explains Igor Semiletov.

The Arctic shelf contains billions of tons of methane. Any massive emission is fraught with catastrophic consequences for our planet’s climate. A jump in its concentration will lead to considerable strengthening of the greenhouse effect. The scientists’ attention is therefore locked on the Arctic. The EU is even creating its own alternative program to study the Russian Arctic shelf. According to Igor Semiletov, research conducted by the present-day expedition will help the world estimate all potential threats and possible development scenarios.

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