NASA is studying “termokarst” in Alaska, lakes that appear as permafrost thaw there.
These lakes can release high levels of methane, a gas that is dangerous for climate change.
As temperatures rise and more of these lakes appear, this could create a negative feedback loop.
A scientist working with NASA said lakes that appear in Alaska due to permafrost melt are “erupting” methane into the atmosphere.
These lakes, called thermokarst, are so full of climate-damaging gas that it can be seen bubbling on the surface.
More and more of these lakes appear as Alaska’s permafrost melts as temperatures rise and forest fires rise, according to a 2021 study.
NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE) project is studying their effect on climate change, according to a NASA blog post published Thursday.
The Thermokarst are born after the earth melts and collapses
Thermokarst lakes appear when permafrost, land destined to remain frozen throughout the year, begins to melt. When this happens, massive blocks of ice embedded in the ground also melt, causing the ground to collapse for several feet.
“Years ago, the land was about three meters higher and it was a spruce forest,” said Katey Walter Anthony, an ecologist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, describing a thermal karst called Big Trail Lake in Alaska.
Walter Anthony worked with NASA’s ABoVE project to study the effect of the Big Trail Lake on climate change.
As the water invades the sinkholes left behind, so do the bacteria.
“At Big Trail Lake, it’s like opening the freezer door for the first time and giving all the food in the freezer to the microbes to break it down,” said Walter Anthony.
“As they decompose it, they erupt methane gas,” he said.
There are millions of lakes in the Arctic, but most are thousands of years old and no longer emit much gas, according to the NASA blog post.
It is only the newer lakes, such as Big Trail, which appeared less than 50 years ago, that emit high levels of gas.
And this is far from a small amount. Insider previously reported that these types of lakes emit so much methane that it is easy to set them on fire after a quick blast in the ice, as can be seen in the video below.
Methane is a devastating greenhouse gas
Although carbon dioxide (CO2) remains the main long-term driver of the climate crisis, methane losses have become a crucial problem in helping to control climate change in the short term.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, which means it keeps the heat radiating from the soil trapped in the atmosphere instead of letting the Earth cool.
It is much more powerful than CO2, around 30 times more effective at trapping heat. But it also dissipates faster than CO2, which lingers in the atmosphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to reduce the short-term impacts of climate change and rapidly reduce the rate of warming,” said Rick Spinrad, head of NOAA previously.
Methane “also contributes to ground-level ozone formation, which causes approximately 500,000 premature deaths worldwide each year,” Spinrad said.
Human activities such as agriculture, fuel exploitation and landfills contribute to a large extent to methane emissions. For example, gas leaks from the pipeline are increasingly being targeted because they can be spotted from space and are easily remedied.
But natural sources such as wetlands can also be large contributors to methane, according to NOAA. Understanding how they could progress is important because rising temperatures could cause a “feedback loop” that “would be largely beyond humans’ ability to control,” NOAA said in April.
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