Arctic methane levels have remained stable despite overall warming trends, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) concluded in a study Wednesday.
While there has been an increase in Arctic warming and methane levels have occasionally gone up, the AGU study explains that there is no long-term trend of rising methane levels.
“There has been a huge increase in Arctic warming, and while we do see spikes in methane due to short-term temperature changes, we’re not seeing a long-term change in methane levels,” Colm Sweeney said in a press release accompanying the study.
There is over 1,000 gigatons (one thousand billion tons) of stored carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Arctic permafrost, roughly two and a half times the amount of CO2 humanity has released since the Industrial Revolution, researchers claim.
Methane is released from thawing permafrost reanimating bacteria that convert dead plant and animal matter into CO2 or methane (if oxygen is present, the bacteria release CO2; where there isn’t enough oxygen present, they release methane). As the Arctic warms, scientists expected that methane levels would naturally rise. Methane is roughly 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.
Part of the reason the methane levels have remained stable is because there are two types of bacteria: one that emits methane and another that consumes methane, and as the temperature warms both increase their activity.
“Bacteria that produce methane and bacteria that consume methane will both become more active as temperatures get warmer,” Steven Wofsy of Harvard University and co-author of the study said in the press release, “Our study suggests that over the past 30 years, these processes have balanced out in the study area.”
“If [the bacteria] are drowned, this will result in anaerobic conditions where they cannot function as they should.” Mette Svenning, professor of Biology at University of Tromso told Science Nordic in an article published in 2012, “That means more methane will be released to the atmosphere,”
If global warming means more rain as some claim, the bacteria won’t be able to produce CO2 due to lack of oxygen and methane levels may yet be an issue.
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