Last September, U.S. and Russian scientists embarked on a 'rapidly-coordinated' mission to investigate reports of extremely high methane emissions escaping from the Siberian Continental Shelf - specifically, the sea shelf of the Laptev Sea, the East Siberian Sea and the Russian part of the Chukotsk Sea.
The 45-day mission has been completed - and preliminary reports are emerging.
They are most disturbing.
Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas. But unlike carbon dioxide, methane is much, much more powerful - more than 20 times as powerful, in fact.
In the past, large-scale releases of methane have been responsible for rapid increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and even the mass extinction of species.
And now, this 'emergency' mission to Siberia is seeing underwater releases of methane so large, and so rapid, that the ocean is literally bubbling.
Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden, one of the leaders of the expedition, reported this in an email leaked just two days ago:
"We had a hectic finishing of the sampling programme yesterday and this past night.
An extensive area of intense methane release was found.
At earlier sites we had found elevated levels of dissolved methane. Yesterday, for the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface.
These 'methane chimneys' were documented on echo sounder and with seismic [instruments]."
The Independent reports:
Methane concentrations at some points reached 100 times background levels.
These anomalies have been seen in the East Siberian Sea and the Laptev Sea, covering several tens of thousands of square kilometres, amounting to millions of tons of methane, said Dr Gustafsson.
"This may be of the same magnitude as presently estimated from the global ocean," he said. "Nobody knows how many more such areas exist on the extensive East Siberian continental shelves.
The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is believed to be greater than all the carbon stored in coal reserves on the planet.
It's actually bubbling to the surface now.
Editor's Note: When this article was first published, I believed that the email quoted above was in a Telegraph article dated November 10, 2011. I was mistaken - the quote and article refer to a 2008 mission. Rather than remove the quote and link, and substantially alter the original article, I am adding an update on the 2011 Mission from the Russian Geographic Society, via The Arctic.
This reference would have been a far better, and more accurate, addition to the original article then the (mistaken) one I used.
I apologize for any confusion this has caused.
September 27, 2011
The international expedition of Russian and American scientists has led to a discovery of new sites of intense methane emissions in the eastern Arctic that can strongly impact the greenhouse effect, Igor Semiletov, Head of the Arctic Research Lab of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Far Eastern Branch, told RIA Novosti Tuesday.
Findings from this 2011 mission should be released in about five months.
One has to wonder - if methane was actually seen bubbling from the surace of the Arctic 3 years ago, what is happening there now that prompted this hastily-organized mission?