Russian scientists find 'most powerful' ever methane seep in Arctic Ocean

Telegraph 1 month ago

Russian scientists in the Arctic Ocean said they have discovered the most powerful methane gas fountain ever recorded, highlighting the danger of this greenhouse gas accelerating climate change or causing an oil or gas spill as it erupts from thawing permafrost.   

A research expedition from the Tomsk polytechnic university found the seep, as methane leaks are known, east of Bennett Island in the East Siberian Sea, where its violent bubbles seemed to make the water “boil” over an area of 50 square feet. 

The concentration of methane in the air there was up to 16 parts per million, more than nine times higher than the atmospheric average. 

“This is the most powerful seep I have ever been able to observe,” lead scientist Igor Semiletov, who has participated in 45 Arctic expeditions, said in a statement this week. “No one has ever recorded anything similar.”

Mr Semiletov warned last month that the sudden release of gases from underwater permafrost could harm oil and gas infrastructure. 

"If we don't take into account research results about the condition of underwater permafrost, geological catastrophes similar to the (Deepwater Horizon) accident in the Gulf of Mexico could occur during exploratory and commercial activities, which would cause irreparable damage,” he said. 

Although Russia has only one offshore oil drilling rig, it has been rapidly expanding the transport of liquified natural gas in the Arctic. 

Members of the expedition wave before setting out from Arkhangelsk last month
Members of the expedition wave before setting out from Arkhangelsk last month

The threat extends to the nuclear power units including seafloor reactors that Russia has been considering for Arctic development, Mr Semiletov added. In August, state concern Rosatom launched a floating nuclear power plant to power the gold-mining outpost of Pevek.  

When researchers drew near to the “emerald-coloured” water of the methane fountain, they “could see how gas was rising to the surface from the black depths of the sea in thousands of bubbly strands,” according to expedition member Sergei Nikiforov. 

They took samples of bottom sediments, water and gas, scooping up the extraordinarily large methane bubbles in buckets rather than small plastic capsules and filling several pressurised cannisters.

The next day, the expedition stumbled upon another giant seep of roughly the same size, even though discovering seeps among rough ocean waves is usually “harder than finding a needle in a haystack,” Mr Nikiforov said.

The group set out last month on a research vessel to study the scale and effects of methane gas emissions from underwater permafrost along the northern sea route, which Russia hopes can draw shipping away from the Suez Canal as the ice melts. The project also includes scientists from the UK, the United States, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. 

This permanently frozen soil lies under two-thirds of Russian territory as well as much of the Arctic Ocean. It has been thawing as the Arctic warms at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet, cracking buildings and pipelines, hampering agriculture, awakening ancient diseases and releasing more greenhouse gases. 

Methane is especially dangerous, as it can warm the earth 86 times as much as carbon dioxide over 20 years in the atmosphere. 

Seagulls fly to Arctic sea ice
Seagulls fly to Arctic sea ice

A recent Russian study found that the thawing of underwater permafrost has doubled in the past three decades, reaching 18 centimetres a year. One of the consequences has been massive releases of methane from the seafloor, including from hydrates, ice-like formations of solid methane that can explode into gas if they are destabilised. 

Methane could also raise the acidity of the water and kill off sea creatures as it breaks down.  

Escaping methane has also been blamed for thousands of underground bubbles and hundreds of mysterious sinkholes 

The expedition will next proceed to the Laptev Sea to study “mega-seeps” there. 

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