Humans might not be to blame for the latest piece of news that has caused new concerns about global warming. A newly-discovered, naturally occuring methane leak over the Arctic Ocean could play a role in future climate change, according to a NASA scientist.
Scientists have long known that there are naturally-occurring pockets of methane gas along many of the oceans' surfaces, but openings in Arctic sea ice fields have allowed the gas to leak into the atmosphere, which lead researcher Eric Kort says may play a "non-negligible" role in future global warming.
"We suggest that the surface waters of the Arctic Ocean represent a potentially importance source of methane," the researchers wrote in Sunday's edition of the journal Nature Geoscience. "The potential atmospheric impact of this Arctic marine source has not been previously assessed."
The finding makes predicting global climate change even more difficult—Kort called methane the "second most important contributor" to global warming, after carbon dioxide. Although methane traps more than 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, it dissipates after about 15 years. He believes the methane leaking out of the Arctic is likely smaller than that of other human-influenced methane sources such as natural gas systems, coal mining and landfills. Although the methane is most likely naturally occurring, ice melts potentially caused by climate change have allowed it to escape into the atmosphere. Scientists had long known that methane existed in the Arctic Ocean, but, in his e-mail, Kort wrote that he was surprised the gas was leaking.
"We didn't expect to see methane being emitted from the remote Arctic Ocean," he wrote. According to the researchers, the amount of methane coming from the Arctic Ocean is about as big as the pockets of the gas being released from an ice shelf in Siberia. In 2010, the National Science Foundation said that the "release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the [Siberian] shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.