Warning! Ice Sheets of Greenland are Releasing Tons of Methane into the Atmosphere

Warning! Ice Sheets of Greenland are Releasing Tons of Methane into the Atmosphere

An international team of researchers discovers that the Greenland Ice Sheet is doing some serious damage to the environment.

Methane is the simplest alkane with four atoms of Hydrogen surrounding a central atom of Carbon. It is one of the important greenhouse gases and plays a significant role in causing ‘Global Warming’. According to an estimate, the atmospheric concentration of Methane has increased by 150% in the last 270 years. This clearly explains the drastic increase in global temperatures. Despite the fact that the concentration of Methane is considerably less than Carbon Dioxide, it is 20-28 times more potent than the more abundant gas. The biological activity of microorganisms provides most of the Methane that is found on our planet. In the absence of Oxygen, organic matter is converted into Methane by these organisms.

Wetlands are the most preferred location for such activities and that’s the reason why sub-glacial lakes were considered an ideal place for this gas. Other than that, fossil fuels (Natural Gas) are also a substantial source of Methane. Scientists had already found reasonable evidence of Methane in an Antarctic Sub-glacial Lake and Greenland Ice Cores but a recent discovery has changed things quite dramatically. According to a study published in the journal ‘Nature’, the meltwaters produced in summer and spring in large ice sheets of Greenland continuously feed Methane to the atmosphere. Guillaume Lamarche-Gagnon, the Lead Author of the study from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol, talked about the significance of the discovery and said,

What is also striking is the fact that we’ve found unequivocal evidence of a widespread subglacial microbial system. Whilst we knew that methane-producing microbes likely were important in subglacial environments, how important and widespread they truly were was debatable. Now we clearly see that active microorganisms, living under kilometers of ice, are not only surviving, but likely impacting other parts of the Earth system. This subglacial methane is essentially a biomarker for life in these isolated habitats.

The researching team camped next to the Greenland Ice Sheet for 3 months and sampled the meltwater which ran off a large catchment (more than 600 km2) during the summer months. The researchers used a range of novel sensors to measure the quantity of Methane in meltwater in real time. They observed that the gas was being exported continuously from beneath the ice. After detailed calculations, they concluded that at least 6 tons of Methane were transported to their measuring site from that particular part of the Ice Sheet alone. Jemma Wadham, the Director of Cabot Institute for the Environment in the University of Bristol, referred to a vital aspect of their discovery in the following words:

A key finding is that much of the methane produced beneath the ice likely escapes the Greenland Ice Sheet in large, fast flowing rivers before it can be oxidized to CO2, a typical fate for methane gas which normally reduces its greenhouse warming potency.

Prior to this research, ‘Permafrost’ was considered the major source of Methane in most of the Arctic studies. The reason for this was that frozen soils have large quantities of organic Carbon that can be converted to Methane as the temperatures start to increase. This particular research showed that ice sheet beds are also ideal for producing Methane as they hold sufficient supplies of Carbon and microorganisms and limited Oxygen. Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, a member of the researching team from Cardiff University, elaborated their work by saying,

The new sensor technologies that we used give us a window into this previously unseen part of the glacial environment. Continuous measurement of meltwater enables us to improve our understanding of how these fascinating systems work and how they impact the rest of the planet.

Scientists are now planning to shift their focus towards Antarctica as it is the largest ice mass on Earth. They think that it is high time that they start exploring that part of the world instead of confining their search for Methane, beneath Arctic ice sheets. Lamarche-Gagnon seems to agree to this idea as he mentioned that several orders of magnitude more Methane could be present beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

You can experience this sub-glacial activity inthe following video:

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