First Sea-Bed Methane Leak Discovered in Antarctica

It seems each week we get more news and evidence that our planet is on the verge of a climate change disaster. This week, that news comes in the form of a report from the Antarctic, which has long been viewed as the canary in the coal mine when it comes to global warming. Over the years, the frozen continent has seen seen significant portions of its ice shelf shrink in size and massive chunks of ice break away from its coastline. But now, a new threat to the environment has emerged, as researchers say they have discovered the first active sea-bed methane leak, which could potentially lead to the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases, further speeding up the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The methane leak was first discovered by divers back in 2011, but scientists didn’t have a chance to return to the area to examine the phenomenon closer until five years later. In 2016, they were able to take sampling and collect data, but it has taken another four years to test and examine that information. Now, it has become abundantly clear that a fissure in the sea floor has been expelling methane for some time, potentially speeding up climate change in the Antarctic.

The research reveled other bad news as well. Scientists had expected to find a large and growing community of methane-eating microbes to be gathering along the leak. These tiny creatures thrive on the gas and could potentially help lessen its impact on the planet. But their research has shown that for some reason those microbes are not showing up in large numbers, meaning they’ll have virtually no impact on the amount of methane that is released.

The crack that is releasing the methane is located in the Ross Sea, a place that hasn’t been dramatically impacted by climate change just yet. That means the leak isn’t the result of warming oceans or shrinking ice shelves, although what has caused it remains a mystery. Climatologists have taken into account increased methane getting released into the atmosphere, but what they hadn’t considered was that the microbes attracted to the methane wouldn’t appear in large enough numbers to lessen the flow. That has troubling implications for climate change models, most of which consider the gas as a major contributor to warming temperatures across the planet.

Scientists know that there are vast amounts of methane stored under the Antarctic ice. Its release has long been seen as a potential tipping point when it comes to climate change. As a so-called greenhouse gas, methane helps to trap heat from escaping the atmosphere. Should billions of tons of the gas be released over the coming decades, it could fundamentally alter the planet, causing temperatures to rise, ice to melt, and water to evaporate at an alarming rate. We’re not quite to that point just yet, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly far off either.

One of the big questions that remains is just how common are these leaks? Researchers are cautious to say without further study and exploration, but the feeling is that where there is one, there are probably more. Whether or not there is anything we can do about it remains to be seen, although with each new climate change report that is released, it seems our task of preventing a disaster gets increasingly more difficult.

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Kraig Becker