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December 13, 2011

Deadly Greenhouse Gas bubbling up in Russian Arctic

By Charles Moffat.

ENVIRONMENT - Dr Semiletov of Russia released his findings for the first time last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. His findings show an unprecedented release of methane that is bubbling up from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The Russian report states that methane has been seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean by Russian scientists undertaking an extensive survey of the region. The scale of the methane release astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.

Igor Semiletov, of the Far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, states that he has never before witnessed the scale and force of the methane being released from beneath the Arctic seabed.

"Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing," says Dr Semiletov. "I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them."

American scientists estimate that there are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked beneath the Arctic permafrost, which extends from the mainland into the seabed. With the disappearance of the Arctic sea-ice in summer, and rapidly rising temperatures across the entire Arctic, the trapped methane could be suddenly released into the atmosphere leading to rapid and severe climate change.

Dr Semiletov's team published a study in 2010 estimating that the methane emissions from this region were about eight million tonnes per year at that time, but the latest expedition suggests that the phenomenon has increased dramatically in volume and strength.

In late Summer 2011 the Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev conducted an extensive survey of about 10,000 square miles of sea off the East Siberian coast. Scientists deployed four highly sensitive instruments, both seismic and acoustic, to monitor the "fountains" or plumes of methane bubbles rising to the sea surface from beneath the seabed.

"In a very small area, less than 10,000 square miles, we have counted more than 100 fountains, or torch-like structures, bubbling through the water column and injected directly into the atmosphere from the seabed," says Dr Semiletov. "We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some plumes were a kilometre or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal."

And if its bubbling up in the Russian arctic chances are likely up it is also bubbling up in the Canadian arctic and off the coast of Greenland.

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