By Randall HymanMay. 8, 2017 , 3:00 PM
Good news about climate change is especially rare in the Arctic. But now comes news that increases in one greenhouse gas—methane—lead to the dramatic decline of another. Research off the coast of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago suggests that where methane gas bubbles up from seafloor seeps, surface waters directly above absorb twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as surrounding waters. The findings suggest that—in isolated spots in the Arctic—methane seeps in isolated spots in the Arctic could lessen the impact of climate change.
“This is … totally unexpected,” says Brett Thornton, a geochemist at Stockholm University who was not involved in the research. These new findings challenge the popular assumption that methane seeps inevitably increase the global greenhouse gas burden.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Molecule for molecule, it traps nearly 30 times as much heat in the atmosphere as CO2. But scientists know relatively little about its role in the global carbon cycle. Most atmospheric methane comes from biological sources—belching bovines and bacteria feasting on decomposing litter—or from the burning of fossil fuels. In the ocean, methane bubbles up from deep seeps, where it is often stored in icelike crystal lattices of water called hydrates. When those hydrates “melt,” because of changing temperatures and pressures, the methane is released, and it can percolate into the atmosphere above.
To find out just how much methane the Arctic Ocean was contributing to the global balance, biogeochemist John Pohlman of the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, set out to measure the gas close to…