Frozen Methane is Thawing and Making its Way Into the Atmosphere

atmosphereIncreasing water temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are causing frozen methane trapped in layers under the seafloor – called methane plumes –to thaw, rise to the surface and enter our atmosphere.

This isn’t the first time warm water temperatures have forced methane to the surface. The frozen methane clusters appeared on the East Coast last year. In August 2014, it was reported that 570 methane seeps clustered in approximately eight regions. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane is about 25 times more potent.

The latest research into methane plumes off the Pacific Northwest comes from the University of Washington. Scientists observed 168 methane plumes over the course of a decade.

“We see an unusually high number of bubble plumes at the depth where methane hydrate would decompose if seawater has warmed,” said H. Paul Johnson, a UW professor of oceanography and lead author of the recent study. “So it is not likely to be just emitted from the sediments; this appears to be coming from the decomposition of methane that has been frozen for thousands of years.”

Frozen as is, the methane plumes are not dangerous to our environment. When they thaw and come to the surface, however, the methane bubbles become a powerful and dangerous greenhouse gas. At the rate these plumes are coming to the surface, our atmosphere could be filled with .1 million metric tons of methane per year, just from the plumes off the Washington coast.

In the past, scientists focused on methane plumes in the Arctic, as well as increasing water temperatures on the ocean’s surfaces. The recent data on methane plumes shows that deep water has had significant temperature spikes due to climate change.

Luckily, much of the methane is eaten up by bacteria or converted into carbon dioxide. But we can’t assume this will be the case forever, as climate change continually affects our planet from year to year.

“Current environmental changes in Washington and Oregon are already impacting local biology and fisheries, and these changes would be amplified by the further release of methane,” Johnson said.

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