Scientists find highest-ever ‘flares’ of methane in Arctic waters

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas

ARCTIC OCEAN – Russian scientists studying Arctic waters found the most powerful ever methane jets shooting up from the seabed to the water’s surface, they said.

Igor Semiletov, the chief scientist aboard a vessel carrying 65 scientists on a 40-day research voyage, told CNN via satellite phone that he found amounts of methane in the air over the East Siberian Sea up to nine times the global average.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a significantly greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide, according to NASA. The methane emissions in the Arctic, fueled by the melting of permafrost on the sea floor, are one driver of climate change, NASA said.

The emissions are presenting a growing risk.

Methane levels Semiletov’s team found in the air above the seawater were “extremely high,” he said. “Nobody has detected these concentrations.”

 

Levels are highest seen in decades of research

 

Semiletov, a professor at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Siberia, said the ship full of scientists reached the East Siberian Sea around the beginning of October.

The water is usually tough to get through due to it being “covered in ice,” but Semiletov said this year was different. The water was “fully open.”

The team studied more than 60 sites known to have had methane emissions at the water’s surface in the past.

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Each emission site varies in size. Some spread across 100 square meters of sea surface. Others can cover a square kilometer.

When the plumes of methane reach the surface, the water looks like it’s boiling. The researchers take samples of the air above the bubbling columns to determine how much methane is coming out of the sea, and its potential to alter the atmosphere.

In previous trips, Semiletov said he found methane at 3, 4 or 5 parts per million at these sites, well above the average atmospheric methane concentration of 1.7 parts per million. On this trip, some of the measurements were up to 16 parts per million.

Semiletov said he embarked on 30 to 35 expeditions over the past 15 years, but on this one there were some surprises.

He said the methane emissions, which look like torches or flares, are “all increasing.”

 

Building on a legacy of breakthroughs

 

Semiletov and his colleague Natalia Shakhova raised an alarm with their 2010 paper in the journal Science showing that underwater permafrost on the seabed of the Arctic shelf could melt and release methane into the ocean.

Prior to that, scientists thought the sub-sea permafrost was essentially an impermeable barrier keeping methane at bay.

In a 2012 interview published by the European Geophysical Union, Shakhova said the hydrocarbons buried beneath the Arctic shelf have potential to be a major contributor to climate change.

As permafrost on the seabed melts, it could dramatically change Earth’s atmosphere, she said, noting the release of only 1% of the gas could make an impact.

“The very shallow water column and weakening permafrost” could lead to the doubling of methane in the atmosphere in “a matter of decades,” Shakhova suggested.

In past trips, the scientists found the methane seeps growing year by year and summarized decades of results earlier this year in the journal Geosciences.

“It’s crucially important to study the change in size of the seeps,” Semiletov said.

 

The methane releases contribute to global warming

 

Semiletov said so far the increasing methane emissions are a “significant contribution” to global warming, “but not catastrophic.”

However, “The public should know it would affect climate in the near future if there are increases in the rate of permafrost degradation,” he said.

The scientists are expected to return to port by the end of the month and they’ll have plenty of new data to process. Semiletov felt confident they’d have enough to publish “a couple of papers” based on the recent voyage.

One major takeaway, he emphasized, was the need to focus global scientific attention on the methane seeps.

“This goes beyond geo-political considerations,” he said. “We need to think about how to combine our efforts to study this, because it affects everyone.”

Who Owns the Arctic?

A polar bear in the Arctic.

Arctic treasures are spawning a new “Cold War,” and the battle to own the Arctic could reshape the region.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

In August, President Donald Trump made international headlines when he voiced an interest in buying Greenland, the world’s largest island, which teeters on the edge of the icy Arctic Ocean. As it turns out, Greenland isn’t for sale, and Trump was widely ridiculed for his diplomatic blundering. Yet, many wondered what could be behind this unprecedented move —and if it might have something to do with the United State’s growing interest in owning a slice of the Arctic.

The U.S. is one of eight nations surrounding the Arctic — along with Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden — that are all currently jostling for ownership of the region’s frozen seas. Several of the countries have already submitted formal papers to a United Nations body, claiming portions of the vast Arctic seabed. Climate change is also opening up the Arctic’s formerly ice-locked waters, making the region more accessible than ever before. “Based on current trends, the predictions of the Arctic being completely ice-free are [that it will happen] around 2040 or 2050,” said Richard Powell, a polar geographer at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

This surge of interest in the region has been dubbed the “scramble for the Arctic,” or more sensationally, “the new Cold War,” because Russia and the United States are big players. But despite the opportunities the region presents, can the Arctic Ocean really be owned by anybody? And why do so many countries want a stake in this landscape of drifting icebergs and polar bears?

Related: Why Is There So Much Oil in the Arctic?

There’s a straightforward answer to the second question: The Arctic possesses massive oil and gas reserves. The seabed beneath the Arctic Ocean houses an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil — about 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves — and an estimated 30% of the planet’s untapped natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A century ago, this immense mineral wealth would have been unreachable, because we lacked the technology to exploit it. Back then, countries were limited to exploring only a thin sliver of sea along their coasts, while areas of remote ocean, like the deep Arctic, were designated as high seas that belonged to no country. But with huge technological advancements in recent decades, remote stretches of ocean have become increasingly accessible. That’s forced international lawmakers to play catch-up and expand the definitions of where countries can legally explore.

Currently, under a treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), signatory countries can exploit resources from the seabed out to 370 kilometres off their shorelines. But if a country can provide evidence that particular geological features on the seabed located farther out from that 200-mile limit are connected to the nation’s continental landmass, then the country’s jurisdiction can be expanded deeper into the sea.

“[Countries] compile the data, make the claim, then the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf [a U.N.-appointed body] rule as to whether they accept the reasoning or not,” Powell told Live Science.

In the Arctic, this approach puts large swathes of once-untouchable ocean up for grabs by the surrounding nations, known as the “Arctic 8.” Many of their claims now focus on the Lomonosov Ridge, a huge, deep-sea geological feature that stretches across the Arctic Ocean. Several nations posit that this ridge is an extension of their continental shelf, a claim that could grant them access to larger areas of Arctic seabed, and thus, vast mineral wealth.

The long game

All this points to a future in which different nations will indeed own chunks of the Arctic Ocean, each with varying degrees of power. Russia and Canada, for instance, are staking the two largest claims, which would inevitably give these nations more regional influence.

However, the divvying up of the Arctic isn’t likely to happen very soon. For one thing, gathering evidence about the seafloor, crafting detailed reports and wading through the intricate science of nations’ claims is an intensive procedure that’s only just begun.

“The process of deciding on those claims itself is going to take possibly decades. Some people predict a couple of decades, but certainly years,” Powell said. Even if countries get the go-ahead, they’ll then have to shoulder the huge expense of getting their ships to the Arctic, building deep-sea infrastructure, and extracting oil and gas from miles beneath the surface.

“It’s not just about melting ice. It’s still an isolated environment. There are still difficult seas and icebergs, and it’s very difficult to get insurance to operate,” Powell said. “There’s a whole set of other issues that are involved in whether that’s practical.”

Related: 10 Things You Need to Know about Arctic Sea Ice

At this stage, therefore, countries’ claims to the Arctic are mostly anticipatory, said Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and director of the Center for Arctic Policy Studies. “A lot of what’s being divvied up doesn’t have anything to do with immediate need. It’s about ‘let’s get what we can under UNCLOS so that we have access to all of that space in the future,'” she said.

Still, should we be worrying now about what ownership will ultimately do to the Arctic, even if that reality is still decades away? Could nations’ jockeying for oil access spark a war? And how will an influx of resource-hungry countries affect the region’s fragile ecology?

Unchecked exploitation?

Powell said the effects on the Arctic will be determined by the general global situation when nations finally move in. “One could imagine a world where there’s more conflict and anxiety about different things, and in that scenario, it would be bad news for the Arctic. But then you can also imagine increasing global organization to combat climate change,” which might prompt states to work together to forge better environmental regulation, Powell said. “I definitely think it depends on other, wider issues.”

Lovecraft said she is more cautiously optimistic. “If I put on my absolute environmentalist’s hat, it’s true, the Arctic will be used more.” However, she added, “I don’t think it’s a race to the bottom.” In other words, the Arctic will be owned and explored — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be destroyed.

The reason is that too much hangs in the balance. For instance, the Arctic’s frigid waters,already threatened by climate change, support food chains that benefit the entire planet. Lovecraft said that governments grasp the crucial importance of protecting that resource.

There’s proof in the Arctic Council, established in the 1990s by the eight Arctic nations. It promotes cooperation among different countries and indigenous communities of the region, “in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic,” the council website says.

Lovecraft said that countries have a desire to safeguard political and environmental stability in the region; they’re not blindly hurtling towards disaster. “People tend to think only about the Arctic in environmental terms, or in these old, Cold War terms. But it’s far more nuanced, and there’s a lot of goodwill,” she said.

This cooperation might also become increasingly crucial as other, non-Arctic nations, like China, grow interested in the region. “They’re never going to be an Arctic country, but they have money. They will use that soft power to create joint ventures [with Arctic nations] and all other kinds of ways to be in the Arctic,” Lovecraft said. A major question then becomes whether the Arctic 8 will band together to protect the region from exploitation, Lovecraft said.

She added that a fixation with the national “scramble for the Arctic”‘ could be distracting people from a larger and more immediate threat to the region: climate change. Ownership will change the face of the Arctic, but climate change is shaping the landscape irrevocably, right now.

“We’re not going to have a war anytime soon in the Arctic. What we are going to have is a fundamental disruption in the ecosystem,” Lovecraft said. “What can [the eight Arctic countries] do to better steward this resource? Why not put more energy into protecting that future, for the common good of mankind?”

Russian scientists say they’ve found the highest-ever ‘flares’ of methane in Arctic waters

(CNN)Russian scientists studying Arctic waters found the most powerful ever methane jets shooting up from the seabed to the water’s surface, they said Friday.

Igor Semiletov, the chief scientist aboard a vessel carrying 65 scientists on a 40-day research voyage, told CNN via satellite phone that he found amounts of methane in the air over the East Siberian Sea up to nine times the global average.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a significantly greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide, according to NASA. The methane emissions in the Arctic, fueled by the melting of permafrost on the sea floor, are one driver of climate change, NASA said.
The emissions are presenting a growing risk.
Methane levels Semiletov’s team found in the air above the seawater were “extremely high,” he said. “Nobody has detected these concentrations.”

Levels are highest seen in decades of research

Semiletov, a professor at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Siberia, said the ship full of scientists reached the East Siberian Sea around the beginning of October.
The water is usually tough to get through due to it being “covered in ice,” but Semiletov said this year was different. The water was “fully open.”
The team studied more than 60 sites known to have had methane emissions at the water’s surface in the past.
Each emission site varies in size. Some spread across 100 square meters of sea surface. Others can cover a square kilometer.
When the plumes of methane reach the surface, the water looks like it’s boiling. The researchers take samples of the air above the bubbling columns to determine how much methane is coming out of the sea, and its potential to alter the atmosphere.
In previous trips, Semiletov said he found methane at 3, 4 or 5 parts per million at these sites, well above the average atmospheric methane concentration of 1.7 parts per million. On this trip, some of the measurements were up to 16 parts per million.
Semiletov said he embarked on 30 to 35 expeditions over the past 15 years, but on this one there were some surprises.
He said the methane emissions, which look like torches or flares, are “all increasing.”

Building on a legacy of breakthroughs

Semiletov and his colleague Natalia Shakhova raised an alarm with their 2010 paper in the journal Science showing that underwater permafrost on the seabed of the Arctic shelf could melt and release methane into the ocean.
Prior to that, scientists thought the sub-sea permafrost was essentially an impermeable barrier keeping methane at bay.
In a 2012 interview published by the European Geophysical Union, Shakhova said the hydrocarbons buried beneath the Arctic shelf have potential to be a major contributor to climate change.
As permafrost on the seabed melts, it could dramatically change Earth’s atmosphere, she said, noting the release of only 1% of the gas could make an impact.
“The very shallow water column and weakening permafrost” could lead to the doubling of methane in the atmosphere in “a matter of decades,” Shakhova suggested.
In past trips, the scientists found the methane seeps growing year by year and summarized decades of results earlier this year in the journal Geosciences.
“It’s crucially important to study the change in size of the seeps,” Semiletov said.

The methane releases contribute to global warming

Semiletov said so far the increasing methane emissions are a “significant contribution” to global warming, “but not catastrophic.”
However, “The public should know it would affect climate in the near future if there are increases in the rate of permafrost degradation,” he said.
The scientists are expected to return to port by the end of the month and they’ll have plenty of new data to process. Semiletov felt confident they’d have enough to publish “a couple of papers” based on the recent voyage.
One major takeaway, he emphasized, was the need to focus global scientific attention on the methane seeps.
“This goes beyond geo-political considerations,” he said. “We need to think about how to combine our efforts to study this, because it affects everyone.”

Arctic sea ice is at a near-record low — but that’s just one of the north’s problems

From raging wildfires to melting ice in Greenland, the top of the world is screaming for help.
Herald Island, part of the Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve in the Arctic Sea

Sea ice has been sparse this summer in the Chukchi Sea between Russia and Alaska.Credit: Yuri Smityuk/TASS via Getty Images

Chelsea Wegner was shocked when she landed in Anchorage, Alaska, in July, on her way to a research cruise in the Bering Sea. Smoke from wildfires across the state had darkened the skies, and Anchorage was in the midst of a heatwave that saw temperatures soar past 32 °C for the first time in recorded history.

Wegner, a marine biologist at the University of Maryland in Solomons, also knew that the unusual warmth had melted away nearly all of the sea ice in the Bering Sea. “It was a really surreal moment,” she says.

Later, while sailing aboard a Canadian icebreaker off the coast of Alaska, Wegner watched walruses swimming in open water — without the ice floes they normally use as a platform to rest, give birth and nurse their young during the Arctic summer.

Any day now, scientists will tally the final numbers on this summer’s annual sea-ice melt. The ice seems headed for one of the lowest extents measured since satellite record-keeping began in 1979.

Here, Nature explores the myriad challenges that the Arctic is facing as an unprecedented summer winds to a close in the far north.

Sea ice spiralled down

Arctic sea ice freezes each winter after a long summer melt. But surprising warmth during the Arctic winter and spring hampered its build-up — setting the stage for this summer’s dramatic ice loss.

The dynamic was especially apparent in the Bering Sea. “From about January to May the sea ice in the Bering Sea just didn’t happen,” says Alice Bradley, a polar scientist at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. “We haven’t seen that before.” A low-pressure weather system hovered over the sea for much of February, funnelling warm air from the south and pushing the little ice that did manage to form into northern waters.

Throughout the spring and summer, Arctic sea ice melted away faster than it usually does in areas such as the Beaufort Sea and the central Arctic Ocean. Ice extent and volume hit record monthly lows in July, and by early August there was no sea ice within 240 kilometres of the Alaskan coast.

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Researchers are still waiting for Arctic sea ice to bottom out this year. The 2019 melt season doesn’t look likely to eclipse the record minimum of 3.387 million square kilometres measured on 17 September 2012, but it adds to evidence that sea ice is caught in a downward spiral.

For each of the past five years, September sea-ice extent has tracked well below the 1981–2010 median. And Arctic sea-ice volume is also dwindling rapidly. The level recorded in July — 8,800 cubic kilometres — is 47% below the mean value for 1979–2018.

Now the annual freeze is almost ready to begin. But much of the ice that forms will be the thin, ‘first-year’ variety that is especially vulnerable to melting away next year.

Greenland melted

Extreme heat also baked Greenland’s enormous ice sheet this summer. Temperatures across the island soared up to 12 °C hotter than the average in late July.

At Summit Station, a research camp at the highest point on the ice sheet, temperatures darted above the freezing point on 30 and 31 July. Ice-core records suggest how rare this is: between the years 500 and 1994, the ice at Summit melted only eight times.

During the five-day heatwave, Greenland shed about 55 billion tonnes of ice — including an estimated 13 billion tonnes on 1 August alone. That’s the most in a 24-hour period since records began in 1950.

Source: Xavier Fettweis/University of Liège

All told, about 60% of the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted at least a little bit this summer. That’s second only to the summer of 2012, when about 98% of the ice sheet underwent some sort of surface melting.

Between water melting off the ice sheet’s surface and breaking off into icebergs, Greenland likely contributed a little over 1.5 millimetres to global sea-level rise this year, according to polar scientist Xavier Fettweis at the University of Liège in Belgium. When researchers eventually compare the mass lost during this summer’s melt to the mass gained during winter snowfall, Greenland is likely to come out as having lost at least as much in 2019 — or even more — than in the extreme year of 2012.

Temperatures soared

July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded worldwide, according to the European Union′s Copernicus Climate Change Service and the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Each of the last five Julys has ranked among the top five hottest months on record.

The Arctic portions of Alaska, western Canada and central Russia all experienced temperatures at least 2 °C warmer than average from January to July. Heat records fell in many southern Alaska cities during the first week of July. And seabirds died by the thousands in July and August, mainly from starvation, in warmer-than-average waters off the state’s coast; it is the fifth year in a row this has happened.

This animated gif shows the build-up of extremely high daytime high temperatures across Alaska from July 4–8, 2019.

Much of Alaska was gripped by a heat wave from 4-8 July 2019. Temperatures in Anchorage soared past 32 °C for the first time in recorded history.Credit: NOAA Climate/RTMA

Alaska was still breaking temperature records in early September, with several towns in the state’s far north setting record highs for the month.

In Sweden, the village of Markusvinsa reported a temperature of 34.8 °C on 26 July — the hottest ever recorded in the country above the Arctic circle. And the heatwave that melted Greenland in late July wreaked havoc on western Europe before it got there, causing temperatures to climb past 40 °C in Belgium and the Netherlands for the first time in recorded history.

Fires flared

All that heat transformed northern forests into tinderboxes ready to light.

More than 1 million hectares burned in Alaska this summer, mostly in the southern and central parts of the state. The fire season began unusually early, in April, and has lasted longer than usual. State officials had to extend the end of the official fire season for a month, from the end of August to the end of September, to ensure they had enough firefighters to battle the ongoing blazes.

And more than 2.6 million hectares have burned in Siberia since July, blanketing cities across eastern Russia in smoke. High temperatures, winds and thunderstorms helped to spark and spread the blazes. Russia declared a state of emergency in late July for several Siberian regions.

Source: NASA

Many of the Alaskan and Siberian wildfires began dwindling in August, but they still rank among the longest-lived Arctic wildfires ever recorded. In June alone they emitted 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide — roughly equal to the annual CO2 emissions of Sweden, and more than the total emitted by all Arctic wildfires in the last nine Junes, according to the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service of the European Commission.

Even Greenland, which rarely sees wildfires, experienced several during its record heatwave this summer.

Huge Wildfires in the Arctic and Far North Send a Planetary Warning

The planet’s far North is burning. This summer, over 600 wildfires have consumed more than 2.4 million acres of forest across Alaska. Fires are also raging in northern Canada. In Siberia, choking smoke from13 million acres — an area nearly the size of West Virginia — is blanketing towns and cities.

Fires in these places are normal. But, as studies here at the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center show, they are also abnormal.

My colleagues and I are examining the complex relationships between warming climate, increasing fire and shifting patterns of vegetation. Using locally focused climate data and models from the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning, the research group I help coordinate, we are finding evidence that is deeply worrying — not just for those of us who live within the fires’ pall of smoke, but for the world.

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Vast Sub-Arctic Forests

The boreal or taiga ecosystem, a swath of northern forest that covers 17% of the globe’s land area, is adapted to fire. It has been burning regularly for thousands of years. This vast landscape is mostly free of human roads, rail lines, power lines and cities. Blazes often spread until the wind changes and the rain falls.

Here in central Alaska, our spindly spruce trees open resinous cones to jump-start new seedlings when the parent tree is scorched. Fast-growing fireweed and other flowers cover recent burn scars. Soon afterward come wild blueberries, willows and birch and aspen trees that shoot up from still-living stumps and roots. Eventually flammable conifers take over again.

Typically, the cycle resumes about every 200 years. But today the cycles are about 25% shorter than in the past, and that changes everything.

The overall increase in burning can be hard to detect and measure because of enormous natural variability. This summer’s fires in Alaska were driven by an intense early-season heat wave. The relationship between hot dry weather and fire is clear. Climate change is causing an equally clear trend toward earlier springs and longer, hotter summers.

However, our state also has some cooler, wetter summers when little or no smoke chokes the air. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between natural year-to-year fluctuations and ominous long-term shifts.

A Blazing North

Nonetheless, shifts are occurring — driven by the unprecedented warming that we are seeing in Alaska. July 2019 now stands as the hottest month ever recorded in the state.

Many of us, including climate researchers, land managers, ecologists, meteorologists, rural and indigenous residents and fire experts, have been collaboratingstudying this issuegathering data, creatingsimulations and computer models, using satellite imagery and getting outdoors to measure exactly what is happening. In Alaska, state and federal agencies work together to monitor and manage fires through theAlaska Interagency Coordination Center and deploy firefighters to the front lines — including a record number of smoke-jumpers this year.

The evidence shows that overall, fires in the far North are becoming bigger, hotter and more frequent. Older conifers are losing ground toyounger deciduous trees, altering whole ecosystems. Torched trees are releasing carbon, along with soils rich in dead plant matter that are burning more deeply than in the past. As these releases fuel further warming, climate change is causing more climate change, which affects the entire planet.

Too Close for Comfort

In Fairbanks, where I live, the human impacts of this summer’s fires have been obvious. As lightning triggered blazes statewide in late June, the Shovel Creek Fire sprang up on the western outskirts of town. Air qualityrapidly deteriorated to “hazardous.” Two neighborhoods were evacuated, sending residents to stay with friends or hole up in my children’s school. Displaced sled dog teams were housed at the local fairgrounds.

On some days in June and July the smoke in Fairbanks was so thick that my neighbor, who has asthma, had to wear a respirator mask. Another friend who has heart trouble had to take refuge in a small conference room at the hospital that was offered as a filtered-air safety zone.

Shouldn’t these fires be prevented, and extinguished when they occur? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. First, the cost of firefighting across huge regions of the Arctic and sub-Arctic would be astronomical, as Russian officials have argued in response to public demands for action to control wildfires in Siberia.

Second, putting out fires now leaves that much more highly flammable fuel on the landscape for next year or the year after — a problem that many blame for catastrophic fires in other states. Fire managers in Alaska, in partnership with land owners, instead have set priorities for firefighting. Lands are grouped in four categories: limited, modified, full and critical. By far the largest fraction is classified “limited,” meaning that fires in these areas are monitored but allowed to burn freely where they don’t threaten lives or known resources.

But when fires threaten homes and lives, they are fought fiercely. After tireless efforts by fire crews from Alaska and the Lower 48, evacuated Fairbanks residents received an all-clear on July 10. People went home, and there were no injuries.

August brought rains to dampen our local fairgrounds, which were finally being used for family fun rather than housing displaced pets. I haven’t heard much complaining. Wet weather has shown up on time here, and we’re grateful. But we realize that other Arctic regions are still burning, and that fire is more than just a local problem for all of us.

NASA’s Investigating the Impact of Arctic Wildfires on Earth. Here’s Why

Using a combination of field and laboratory work, as well as satellite and airborne observations, NASA is launching a study of the effects of Arctic wildfires in Alaska on the surrounding habitat and people’s health, as well as how the increased frequency of these events affects climate forecasting.

Wildfires in the Arctic are usually started by lightning strikes and left to burn unless they get too close to infrastructure or people, according to a statement by NASA. However, as a result, the fires tend to spread out and consume large areas of vegetation.

“Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, but what we’re seeing is an accelerated fire cycle: we are getting more frequent and severe fires and larger burned areas,” Liz Hoy, a boreal fire researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in the statement.

Related: How NASA Is Using Lasers to Study Climate Change (Video)

These record-setting wildfires raged across the Northwest Territories of Canada in 2014.

(Image credit: Peter Griffith/NASA)

Hoy also works as part of NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), a field campaign that examines the resilience of Arctic and boreal ecosystems and societies in response to changes in the environment.

Wildfires in the Arctic contribute to carbon emissions created by the burning of a thick, carbon-rich layer of soil, which also acts as an insulation for the permafrost — a frozen layer of ground that lies beneath the soil.

“When you burn the soil on top it’s as if you had a cooler and you opened the lid,” Hoy said. “The permafrost underneath thaws and you’re allowing the soil to decompose and decay, so you’re releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere.”

The thawing of this layer of ground also causes land subsidence and soil collapse, according to NASA.

“Whether the fire-disturbed area will recover or go forward toward subsidence depends on how much ground ice is underlaying in the ground,” Go Iwahana, a permafrost researcher at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who also works with ABoVE, said in the statement. “Other factors at play are how severely the fire wounds the surface organic layer and the weather the burned area experiences after the fire.”

Richard Chen, a graduate student at the University of Southern California, was sampling the soil for NASA’s ABoVE campaign in an area where a fire had taken place in Alaska.

(Image credit: Peter Griffith/NASA)

The fires also have an effect on the wildlife surrounding the area as they alter the distribution of plant species, the statement added. One reindeer species that are native to the Arctic, Caribou, take a long time to recover after a fire as they rely on slow-growing plants for food.

“After an intense fire, we can see changes in the overall vegetation composition of the land,” Hoy said. “It’s going to change the mammal species that are able to live there and how people can use the land, for example, for hunting.”

ABoVE is also launching a project to study the effects that these fires have on the population of Alaska as wildfires release large amounts of particulate matter that affect people’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

“Fires happen during the warm months, when people spend a lot of time outdoors,” Tatiana Loboda, a professor at the University of Maryland, who launched the project, said in the statement. “Especially indigenous people doing subsistence activities like fishing and hunting.”

Loboda plans on using data provided by NASA satellites to look at daily records of the fire burning, as well as the intensity of the fire and the kind of greenery it burned in order to determine the type of particulates that the fire released.

A Weather Station Above the Arctic Circle Hit 94.6 Degrees Fahrenheit

Photo: AP

Amid the hottest month in recorded history, some records still stand out as absolutely jaw dropping. That’s definitely true of a measurement made in the Arctic this July.

According to data released in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) monthly climate analysis, a weather station in Sweden north of the Arctic Circle hit a stunning 94.6 Fahrenheit (34.8 degrees Celsius) last month. As an isolated data point, it would be shocking. But coupled with a host of other maladies, from no sea ice within 125 miles of Alaska to the unruly fires ravaging Siberia, it’s an exclamation point on the climate crisis.

The steamy temperature was recorded on July 26 in the small Swedish outpost of Markusvinsa, which sits on the southern edge of the Arctic Circle. Deke Arndt, a NOAA climate scientist, said on a call with reporters that the data was analyzed and quality controlled by the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute and that “they have established that as highest temperature north of the Arctic Circle” for the country. For comparison, the hottest temperature recorded in New York City last month was 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius).

The heat wave that enveloped the Arctic spread a lot farther than Markusvinsa, though. Alaska recorded its hottest month ever amid extremely weird weather for the state. The heat has driven massive wildfire, and smoke from those fires enveloped Anchorage and Fairbanks, the former of which has had its smokiest summer on record, according to Alaska weather expert Rick Thoman. Salmon dieoffs, the earliest walrus haul out ever recorded, and emaciated animals have also been reported around the state.

During the same press call, Thoman expanded on the reasons why it’s been so weird in Alaska. The big one is the disappearance of sea ice six to eight weeks ahead of schedule, which has left a 125-mile ring of open water around the state. Oceans were already warm going into the summer, but the dark exposed ocean water has absorbed even more heat compared to the normally reflective ice cover.

Thoman called it “remarkable warmth” and said it surpassed the oceanic heat wave dubbed The Blob that gripped the northeastern Pacific in 2015. The hot oceans have in turn heated up the land. Increased evaporation has thus cranked up the humidity, leading to some uncomfortably warm nights in Alaska.

Just as the heat hasn’t been confined to Markusvinsa, the disappearing sea ice isn’t just an Alaskan coast thing. The Arctic Ocean as a whole recorded its lowest July sea ice extent ever, which could have in part helped fuel a bizarre lightning storm just a few hundred miles from the North Pole. Sea ice was a staggering 19.8 percent below average, dipping well under the previous low set in July 2012. Sea ice stans may recall 2012 as the year sea ice hit a record minimum extent. While we’re still six to eight weeks away from the annual sea ice minimum, and things could change in the coming month or so, this year’s icepack is in decidedly bad shape.

July’s Arctic heat is part of a larger global trend driven by carbon pollution. The NOAA data released on Thursday also confirmed that July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, with temperature edging 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit (0.95 degrees Celsius) above the 20th-century average. Based on the heat in the first seven months of 2019, the world is almost certain to have one of its five warmest years on record. Using data analyzed separately by Berkeley Earth, climate scientist Robert Rohde tweeted that there’s a 90 percent chance that 2019 will go down as the second hottest year on record, trailing only 2016.

Why Is There So Much Oil in the Arctic?

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/misguided-nordhaus-model-optimal-climate-change-by-adair-turner-2019-08

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Why Is There So Much Oil in the Arctic?

An illustration of an oil platform in the Arctic Ocean.

Credit: Shutterstock

In 2007, two Russian submarines plunged down 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) into the Arctic Ocean and planted a national flag onto a piece of continental shelf known as the Lomonosov Ridge. Rising from the center of the Arctic Basin, the flag sent a clear message to the surrounding nations: Russia had just laid claim to the vast oil and gas reserves contained in this underwater turf.

Russia’s dramatic show of power had no legal weight — but it isn’t the only nation that’s trying to stake claims to the Arctic’s vast depository of oil and gas. The United States, Norway, Sweden, Finland and China are all trying to cash in. It’s no wonder: Projections show that the area of land and sea that falls within the Arctic Circle is home to an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil, an incredible 13% of Earth’s reserves. It’s also estimated to contain almost a quarter of untapped global gas resources.

Most of the oil that’s been located in this region so far is on the land, just because it’s easier to access. But now, countries are making moves to start extracting offshore, where the vast majority — 84% — of the energy is believed to occur. But long before this oil race began, how did the Arctic become so energy rich? [How Does Oil Form?]

“The first thing you realize [if you look at a map] is that the Arctic — unlike the Antarctic — is an ocean surrounded by continents,” Alastair Fraser, a geoscientist from Imperial College London, told Live Science. Firstly, this means there’s a huge quantity of organic material available, in the form of dead sea creatures such as plankton and algae, which form the basis of what will ultimately become oil and gas. Secondly, the surrounding ring of continents means that the Arctic Basin contains a high proportion of continental crust, which makes up about 50% of its oceanic area, Fraser explained. That’s significant because continental crust — as opposed to ocean crust, which makes up the rest of the area — typically contains deep depressions called basins, into which organic matter sinks, he said.

Here, it gets embedded in shale and preserved in ‘anoxic’ waters, meaning they contain little oxygen. “Normally, in a shallow sea with lots of oxygen, it would not be preserved. But if the sea is deep enough, the ocean will be stratified, meaning the oxygenated waters at the top will be separated from the anoxic conditions at the base,” Fraser explained. Conserved within these oxygen-deprived basins, the matter maintains compounds that ultimately make it useful as an energy source millions of years in the future.

The geography of the Arctic

The geography of the Arctic

Credit: Alistair Fraser

As mountains erode over millennia, the continents also provide a wealth of sediment, transported via huge rivers into the sea. This sediment flows into the basins, where it overlays the organic material, and over time, forms a hard but porous material known as “reservoir rock,” Fraser said. Fast-forward millions of years, and this repeated layering process has put the organic material under such immense pressure that it has begun to heat up.

“The temperature of the sediments in basins increases roughly 30 degrees Centigrade [54 degrees Fahrenheit] with every 1 kilometer [0.6 miles] of burial,” Fraser said. Under this intensifying pressure and heat, the organic material very gradually transforms into oil, with the highest temperatures forming gas.

Because these substances are buoyant, they begin moving upward into the gaps within the porous sedimentary rock, which becomes like a storage container — the reservoir — from which oil and gas are extracted.

So it’s the combination of these ingredients — huge quantities of organic matter, abundant sediment to lock in the oil and gas, the ideal underlying geology and the huge scale across which these occur — which makes the Arctic Ocean so unusually energy rich. (On land, where a smaller percentage of the Arctic’s overall oil and gas lies, these reserves were most likely formed in a time when the land was covered by sea.)

However, just because the energy is there doesn’t mean it should be extracted, many conservationists and scientists say. The Arctic’s remoteness, its dense, moving sea ice and drifting icebergs will make it a huge logistical challenge to safely extract oil and gas. [How Are Oil Spills Cleaned?]

“I really don’t support it, because the industry does not have the technology to do it safely and in an environmentally friendly way,” Fraser said. “Some people will argue that you never can do it in the Arctic in an environmentally friendly way.”

Even on land, plans to expand oil and gas development in the Arctic are treated with concern. This year, the United States government intends to start leasing land in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy companies, because the refuge contains a vast, 1.5 million-acre (607,000 hectares) coastal plain that’s rich in oil. But, it’s also a biodiverse landscape that’s home to huge migratory herds of caribou, hundreds of bird species and polar bears. “It’s been called America’s last great wilderness; it’s one of the ecologically richest landscapes in the U.S.,” said Garett Rose, an attorney with the Alaska Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Credit: Garett Rose

It’s not just the increased risk of oil spills if drilling goes ahead that’s concerning; conservationists also worry about seismic exploration, which “involves running these giant trucks over the landscape to send shock waves into the ground that return information on the underlying geology,” Rose told Live Science. That would cause obvious disruption to wildlife. Construction of roads and pipelines will slice up this intact landscape and bring in increasing numbers of people — which will intensify the pressure on wildlife.

“[The refuge] is a dynamic and interconnected landscape that’s extremely sensitive to change,” Rose said. He also said he was concerned about the U.S. government’s recent (but failed) attempt to open the Arctic off Alaska’s coast to offshore drilling, too. “This is part of a wholesale attempt to expand oil and gas development across the Arctic,” Rose said.

Indeed, the situation in the Alaskan Refuge provides just a taster of what could unfold in other parts of the Arctic, if oil and gas extraction projects forge ahead. The risk of oil spills is enlarged offshore, because they’d be impossible to contain — with untold potential effects on sea life. And some scientists say the greatest ultimate threat is climate change. Bringing these fossil fuels to the surface would only lead to more fuel use, and more emissions being pumped into our atmosphere.

We’re not there yet: Countries need to ratify an international United Nations agreement if they want to extract fossil fuels from parts of the continental shelf that fall beyond their offshore jurisdiction. That’s slowing the Arctic rush. Still, international pressure is mounting, with countries like Russia having already staked out their claim on the seafloor.

And it could be a hard sell to make countries see that those reserves should remain untapped. In short, said Fraser, “I hope this region doesn’t become too important [for energy production].”

Originally published on Live Science.

Arctic fires: “You have to go to a different planet to find a more persistent type”

burning fire forestImage courtesy Pixabay, under Creative Commons License

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Wired. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Here’s a sentence for you: The Arctic is burning. Yes, that Arctic—the traditionally cold and wet one, large swaths of which are being consumed by an astonishing number of wildfires, from Russia to Greenland to Alaska.

Arctic fires—the combination of these two words is still an unusual term in my field of fire science,” says Guillermo Rein of Imperial College London. “Arctic fires are rare, but they’re not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is the number of fires that are happening. Never before have satellites around the planet seen this level of activity.”

Unprecedented, yes, but not unexplained. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, leading to the desiccation of vegetation, which fuels huge blazes. Fortunately for us, these wildfires typically threaten remote, sparsely populated areas. But unfortunately for the whole of humanity, so far this year Arctic fires have released some 121 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than what Belgium emits annually. That beats the previous Arctic record of 110 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, set in 2004—and we’re only in July.

Why such a huge burp of emissions? Because these are no ordinary wildfires. Many of them are burning through peat. You may know peat as the magical substance that gives Scotch its smoky flavor, but it also forms the squishy foundation of whole ecosystems, known as peatlands. It’s made from slowly decomposing organic matter, like moss, that gradually builds up into a layer perhaps several meters thick. Given enough time and enough pressure, it will eventually harden into the undisputed heavyweight champion of carbon emissions: coal.

Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store on Earth. From this muck the rest of the ecosystem sprouts, though trees typically don’t grow very tall because of the peat’s low oxygen content. The leaf canopy is thin, which means more light reaches the ground, fueling the growth of wet, fluffy sphagnum mosses, or what McMaster University ecohydrologist Mike Waddington calls “super mosses.” In a healthy system, these mosses keep the peatland from burning. Indeed, thriving peatland can actually act as a fire break, stopping neighboring wildfires from spreading.

But then we humans came along and did human things, like draining the peatlands for agriculture or warming the Arctic with our emissions. When peat is wet, it’s up to 95 percent water, but as it dries it condenses, turning into one of the most flammable substances in nature. “Drier and denser are the double whammy,” says Waddington. “If those types of peatlands were to ignite, you can burn well over 1,000 years of carbon accumulation in one single fire.” For every hectare, you might lose 200 tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The typical car emits 5 tons in a year.

And when dried peat burns, it burns in a super weird way. In California, fierce autumn winds fan blazes like last year’s Camp Fire, which consumed dry grasses and shrubs and trees before overwhelming a town of 30,000 in a matter of minutes. But when peat catches fire, say after a lightning strike at the surface, it smolders like a lit cigarette, gradually burning deeper and deeper into the ground and moving laterally across the ecosystem, carving enormous holes in the soil. “I’ve seen smoldering holes where I go inside and I disappear from the horizon,” says Rein.

This three-dimensional fire continues for perhaps months at a time, gnawing both downward and sideways through carbon-rich material. “It’s the combination of these two phenomena that leads to massive carbon emissions, massive damage to the ecosystem, massive damage to the soil and the root systems,” Rein says. “You have to go to a different planet to find a more persistent type of fire.”

This persistence is particularly dangerous if a peat fire runs into an unhealthy forest. Here, the soil carries more oxygen, helping trees grow taller. “As those trees get bigger, the shading is essentially the kryptonite of the super mosses,” says Waddington. “They stop growing and they stop storing carbon. So not only do you have more fuel in the trees, but you lose that resistant moss at the surface.” It’s a recipe for a runaway wildfire.

And if mosses aren’t storing carbon, they aren’t helping us get out of this mess we’ve created. So the solution here is an odd one. “It seems counterintuitive that you could cut down trees and store more carbon, but that’s exactly what can happen,” says Waddington. “You get the mosses to grow, and you not only store carbon but you reduce the risk of future fires.” (In other words, planting trees can sometimes do more harm than good.) That, though, would require forest management across swaths of the Arctic, a kind of management we in the US can’t even do right on a small scale.

What we’re looking at, then, is yet another complicating factor in the massive complexity that is climate change: When peat burns, it emits lots of carbon dioxide, and when peatlands aren’t healthy, they don’t capture any. The extent to which this is affecting climate change, though, is not yet clear. Nor is how bad exactly the situation will get in the Arctic. But the problem is supremely urgent: Peatlands cover 1.3 million square miles around the world, storing the same amount of carbon you’d get from burning fossil fuels for 60 years.

The underlying and inevitable problem is uncertainty. Even one component of climate change—peatlands—demands far more research, to say nothing of the dizzying number of other components that interact with each other to form the whole Earth system. Models are getting better and better, though, and incorporating more sources of natural emissions, in addition to the carbon dioxide we humans are pumping into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the Arctic is burning. Which is not the last time you’ll read that sentence.

Melted Permafrost in Alaska a Sign of Accelerating Climate Change

  1 HOUR AGO

Yukon Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska
CREDIT PHOTO COURTESY: SUE NATALI

Extreme heat in Europe and the continental U.S. has made headlines this summer. What you may not have heard about is what’s been going on in Alaska: 90 degree temps in the arctic, wildfires and rare lightning storms, and the ground literally collapsing due to the melting of permafrost.

A team of scientists and students with Woods Hole Research Center’s Polaris Project are just back from a trip to the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta to study climate impacts. Lead scientist Sue Natali says she’s never seen anything like it in her years of Arctic research, and warns it is a sign of abrupt and accelerating climate change.

As part of their research, Natali and her team installed temperature sensors down to a meter at what should have been permafrost. What they discovered was thawing, which in turn created ground collapse at a level she’d never seen before.

It begs the question, is this just one extreme year, or is this the result of climate change?

“It’s definitely climate change,” Natali said. “It’s accelerating and the past couple years have been particularly bad. The past winters have been warm. There has been rain when there should be snow, the ground hasn’t been frozen in this area.” And, she added, “the ground surface didn’t freeze until mid-January this year.”

In addition to being unsafe, ground collapse also emits higher methane emissions.

“In undisturbed tundra, we have never seen nitrous oxide emissions, or nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas. It’s more than 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide and so these are new observations,” Natali said.

CREDIT PHOTO COURTESY: SUE NATALI

She and her team are gathering and processing information, but there’s still a lot of unknown. The changes are happening at a fast rate, but it’s proving difficult to put into a model.

“I would say we’re being quite conservative when we make our estimates about how much carbon will be released from thawing permafrost because of these sort-of surprising events.”

In terms of numbers, Natali estimates that about 150 billion tons of carbon will be released from thawing permafrost by the end of the century if we continue to re-emit fossil fuel emissions at our current rate. That’s on-par with the U.S. emission rate.

But, she says, if we control warming from fossil fuels, we can control the release from permafrost thawing.

As part of her research, Natali speaks with Native Alaskans. She says they’re dealing with the changes by working with each other, and by working with scientists. She noted people are themselves moving their own houses.

But there’s only so much people can do. The problems that are happening in the Arctic are globally caused. “And I think there should be global support.”