NASA is studying “thermokarsts” in Alaska, lakes that appear when permafrost thaws there.
These lakes can release large amounts of methane, a dangerous gas for climate change.
As the temperature rises and more of these lakes appear, it can cause a negative feedback loop.
Lakes appearing in Alaska because of melting permafrost “burp” methane into the atmosphere, said a scientist who worked with NASA.
Called thermokarsts, these lakes are so full of the climate-damaging gas that you can see it bubbling to the surface.
According to a 2021 study, more and more of these lakes are appearing as Alaska’s permafrost thaws with rising temperatures and increasing wildfires.
NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project is studying their effect on climate change, according to a NASA blog post published Thursday.
Thermokarsts are born after the earth thaws and collapses
Thermokarst lakes appear when permafrost, soil meant to remain frozen year-round, begins to melt. When this happens, huge blocks of ice wedged into the ground also melt, causing the ground to collapse several meters.
“Years ago, the ground was about ten feet higher and it was a spruce forest,” says Katey Walter Anthony, an ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, of a thermokarst called Big Trail lake in Alaska.
Walter Anthony has collaborated with NASA’s ABoVE project to study the effect of Big Trail Lake on climate change.
As water enters the sinkholes left behind, so do bacteria.
“At Big Trail Lake, it’s like opening the door of your freezer for the first time and giving all the food in your freezer to microbes to decompose,” says Walter Anthony.
“As they decompose it, they emit methane gas,” she said.
There are millions of lakes in the Arctic, but most are thousands of years old and don’t give off much gas anymore, according to the NASA blog post.
It’s only the newer lakes, like Big Trail, which appeared less than 50 years ago, that release high levels of the gas.
And this is far from a small amount. Insider previously reported that these types of lakes release so much methane that you can easily set them on fire after a quick jab in the ice, as can be seen in the video below.
Methane is a devastating greenhouse gas
While carbon dioxide (CO2) remains the leading cause of the long-term climate crisis, methane leaks have become a hot-button issue to help manage climate change in the short term.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps heat from the ground in the atmosphere rather than cooling the Earth.
It is much more potent than CO2, about 30 times more effective at retaining heat. But it also disappears faster than CO2, which lingers in the atmosphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Reducing methane emissions is an important tool that we can now use to mitigate the short-term impacts of climate change and rapidly reduce warming,” Rick Spinrad, the head of NOAA, said earlier.
Methane also “contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, which causes about 500,000 premature deaths worldwide each year,” Spinrad said.
Human activities such as agriculture, fuel exploitation and landfills are a major contributor to methane emissions. For example, gas leaks from methane pipelines are increasingly targeted because they can be spotted from space and easily fixed.
But natural sources such as wetlands can also be a major contributor to methane, according to NOAA. It’s important to understand how they might progress, because rising temperatures could trigger a “feedback loop” that is “largely beyond the ability of humans to control,” NOAA said in April.
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