Large natural release of methane in the Beaufort Sea reported in the
National Post, Canada.
Methane gushes from sea floor
Ominous eruptions: 'Huge gap in our understanding,' scientist warns
CanWest News Service
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Scott Dallimore is not about to push the panic button. But the
federal permafrost specialist says methane, one of the most potent
gases associated with global warming, is bubbling out of mud
volcanoes on the floor of the Beaufort Sea.
He and his colleagues at the Geological Survey of Canada have been
sizing them up from ships. They have sent down remotely operated
vehicles for a closer look. And they have been peering into holes in
the sea ice created as the gas bubbles to the surface.
"They are fantastic things," Mr. Dallimore says of the "pingo-like
features," or mud volcanoes, that are one of the wilder cards in the
global warming equation.
Along with the methane bubbling out of the metres-high mounds on the
sea floor, Mr. Dallimore says the gas is seeping out of permafrost in
some areas. Scientists do not know how much gas is being released, if
the rate of release is increasing or what the impact will be on the
"It is a huge gap in our scientific understanding," says Mr.
Dallimore, echoing international reports that point to escaping
methane as one of the ominous unknowns associated with the profound
change underway at the top of the planet.
While there may still be debate about the cause of the change, there
is little doubt the Arctic is being radically redefined. And leading
researchers say it is time to get serious about not only reducing
pollution linked to the warming, but to filling in the important
blanks in knowledge and figuring out how to adapt to the change.
Polar ice has been shrinking at a rate of about 74,000 square
kilometres annually for the last 30 years, according to David Barber,
an ice specialist at the University of Manitoba. That means enough
ice to cover Lake Superior vanishes each year.
Mr. Barber predicts the fabled Northwest Passage could be open for
summer shipping within decades. The Arctic ice is withdrawing so
fast, he and some of his colleagues predict that by 2050 it may be
non-existent in summer. "It could be as early as 2020, or it could be
2050," Mr. Barber says. "This is not an insignificant thing, this is
a very major change in how the Arctic system functions. We're talking
about a change over 50 years, 80 years at the outside, which we
haven't seen on the planet Earth for at least a million years. This
is very rapid."
Greenland's ice sheet is also on the move, sliding into the sea at
about 12 kilometres a year, dumping icebergs and meltwater at twice
the rate it did a decade ago. "In the next 10 years, it wouldn't
surprise me if the rate doubled again," Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory said after publishing the findings in the
journal Science last month.
Low-lying coastal communities are already feeling the impact of
increased wave action and erosion that comes with more open water and
some may have to relocate to more solid ground. Building foundations
and airport runways are buckling as permafrost melts, prompting civil
engineers in Nunavut and Northern Quebec to start drawing up
But there is little anyone can do for the animals and other life
forms that will be stranded as temperatures climb and the Arctic's
icy cloak lifts.
"If you live on the sea ice like the polar bear, you are in big
trouble -- your habitat is disappearing," says biologist John Smol of
Queen's University, who is documenting the transformation underway in
freshwater lakes in Nunavut.
He, like many Arctic researchers, stresses the need for the public
and politicians to wake up to the profound nature of the change.
"People have still not caught on to how serious it is," says Mr.
Smol, the current holder of the country's top science prize: the
Herzberg gold medal. "I believe climactic warming is by far the most
serious issue we should be thinking about, over terrorism and over
all the other things that make headlines."
Some see benefits to the receding ice, such as summer shipping and
easier access to Arctic riches of oil, gas, minerals and diamonds.
But Mr. Smol and Mr. Barber caution that any opportunities -- "and I
hesitate to call them opportunities," says Mr. Smol -- will be offset
Salmon showing up in the Arctic waters might lead to new fisheries,
but other species will be displaced. Increased shipping is sure to be
associated with accidents. And while permafrost is expected to give
way to more forest and agriculture, the big melt could create havoc
for pipelines, runways and roads designed to sit on, or in, frozen
Then there is the vast store of carbon and frozen methane gas, known
as gas hydrates, that have been locked in permafrost and Arctic
seabeds for millennia.
Energy companies and scientists like Mr. Dallimore are exploring the
possibility of exploiting the frozen gas hydrates as a new source of
energy. But there is concern hydrates may escape as temperatures rise
and permafrost melts.
Methane is 20 times more efficient as a greenhouse gas than the
carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels and
associated with global warming.
No one knows how much of the Arctic gas will escape as temperatures
rise. Mr. Dallimore and his colleagues hope to get a better read on
the potential threat as part of a project -- planned for the
International Polar Year in 2007-8 -- to assess the methane bubbling
out of the sea and ground in Canada's North.
"Whether the gas is from degrading permafrost or whether it is from
deep gas hydrates, we don't know at this point," Mr. Dallimore
says. "But we need to find out."
© National Post 2006