A sixty-member international team of scientists has now found evidence that frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean are beginning to be released.
The scientists aboard the Russian research ship R/V Akademik Keldysh noted that the methane levels at the sea surface are four to eight times of what would normally be expected.
“At this moment, there is unlikely to be any major impact on global warming, but the point is that this process has now been triggered,” Swedish scientist Örjan Gustafsson, of Stockholm University, told The Guardian.
“This East Siberian slope methane hydrate system has been perturbed and the process will be ongoing.”
The scientists, who are part of the years-long International Shelf Study Expedition, added that their findings are preliminary. Exactly how much methane is being released won’t be confirmed until they return and further analyze the data.
“The discovery of actively releasing shelf slope hydrates is very important and unknown until now,” chief scientist Igor Semiletov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told The Guardian.
“This is a new page. Potentially they can have serious climate consequences, but we need more study before we can confirm that.”
Emissions of methane are already known to have hit an all-time record high. The new levels are equivalent to putting an extra 350 million cars on the world’s roads or doubling the total emissions of Germany or France, according to recent research by several institutions, including NASA, Yale, and Stanford.
The researchers contend that rising methane levels, combined with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, have the potential to warm the planet’s atmosphere by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius before the end of this century—which would have catastrophic consequences for millions, if not billions, of people worldwide.
Africa, the Middle East, China, South Asia, and Oceania witnessed the steepest rises in methane emissions, with the United States close behind. The U.S. increase has been driven largely by the expanded use of natural gas.
Since 2000, the largest increases in methane emissions came from the agricultural sector, particularly from livestock like cattle and sheep, and the fossil-fuel industry, which includes both coal mining and oil and gas production.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.