Get ready for the methane apocalypse

New research reveals the potent gas is leaking through Arctic permafrost. But don't be alarmed -- it's just science

Published March 5, 2010 3:52PM (EST)

Some scientists believe that previous episodes of rapid temperature rises in the earth's climate were caused by abrupt releases of methane gas into the atmosphere. Salon published an excellent story a year ago exploring the possibility that such a scenario could happen again.

The doomsday scenario goes something like this: If global temperatures keep rising, some methane hydrates will melt, sending methane gas bubbling up through the ocean and into the atmosphere. Like any good greenhouse gas, the methane will trap heat close to Earth's surface, causing temperatures to climb even higher. Hotter temperatures will melt more hydrates, and on and on. In other words, methane hydrates could trigger the mother of all feedback loops. The story, says David Archer, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, "has a great apocalyptic side to it."

Now comes this, from a paper to be published today in Science:

A section of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the powerful greenhouse gas, according to the findings of an international research team led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov.

The research results, published in the March 5 edition of the journal Science, show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.

Matthew Yglesias is funny:

It's a good thing this is all part of some giant conspiracy, because if I thought scientists at the University of Alaska were undertaking good-faith scientific research I'd be really worried ...

Joe Romm has more. A lot more.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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