Much of the talk about climate change centers around the word “carbon”. However, “methane” is a much more sinister contributor to climate change. Per molecule, methane, that stinky “fart” gas, is twenty-five times more potent than carbon dioxide over the course of a century. One region where methane’s contribution to climate change is studied by NASA is the Arctic. “The Arctic?!” the gringa exclaims. Yes, I know, dear reader. You must be thinking the same thing. What the heck is in the Arctic to contribute to atmospheric pollution? I mean, what does it have, a population of a hundred or so? How could a population so small create a problem so big?
Well, methane does not necessarily need a human created industrial complex to exist. In the Arctic, methane is created from decomposing microbes within the soil. While the Arctic tundra remains sealed by permafrost, the methane gas remains trapped within. As soon as Spring rolls around and this frozen layer of soil begins to thaw, the gas is released. This is a natural cycle. This was the thinking of the scientific community.
Based on models that depict this stable, natural cycle’s past methane gas release volumes, it has been determined that current methane levels that are escaping into the atmosphere are much higher than model estimates expected. Surprise, surprise! The research team conducting these studies have used specialized precision instruments to measure Arctic methane gas emissions during the summer months. They ignored gathering data during the brutal winter months on the assumption that because the ground was frozen solid, the methane would be sealed within the permafrost.
They are now discovering they have been terribly wrong. From September until May, the Arctic winter, the wet, lowland tundra as well as the drier, upland tundra are very actively emitting methane gas. In fact, the Arctic winter emits just as much methane as the Arctic summer. Methane seepage is just much slower during the frozen conditions upon the tundra during the winter season. However, since the winter season is about eighty percent longer in duration than the short summer season, there is plenty of time for slow winter methane seepage to catch up to the amount of emissions that are released quickly during the warmer Summer months.
During winter, even though the temperature of the soil is below the freezing point (32 degrees Fahrenheit/0 degrees Celsius), water that is trapped within the soil does not necessarily freeze completely. The active layer of Arctic soil, the top layer that thaws in summer and freezes in winter, experiences what scientists call a “sandwich effect” when it re-freezes. As the active layer begins to refreeze, there is a mid-section that is insulated by a frozen top and frozen bottom. This mid-section of the top, active layer does not completely freeze. Within this unfrozen strip of soil microorganisms do what microorganisms do, they break down organic matter which creates methane emissions. And this goes on all winter long in the Arctic.
The drier, upland Arctic tundra has also surprised scientists. Prior to these studies researchers believed that this area would produce less methane gas. However, what they have discovered is that the grasses and plants act like little chimneys, spewing higher volumes of methane into the atmosphere.
Although this may sound like bad news, the gringa says, “There, there. Do not dismay. Even if it seems like bad news at least it’s NEWS! Now we KNOW and now we can ACT.” And that is just what NASA plans to do. Now that they have this very important data, they can rearrange their climate models which are used to create predictions to calculate future methane budgets. And, if the dear reader is anything like the gringa, you know very well that any budget has to be adjusted, sometimes quite often, especially when new expenses are realized.
Since methane is a critical component to the warming of Earth’s atmosphere, it is vitally important to have correct data. Now NASA can develop better solutions to continue to improve life here on Earth and to safeguard the future of Earthlings. And the gringa is glad that they are on the job.
Photo credit: http://biomesgroup2.wikispaces.com/Tundra