Ancient methane escaping from melting glaciers could potentially warm the planet even more

As mighty glaciers melt in the Arctic, new research shows that million-year-old methane gas trapped beneath the ice is emerging, with the potential to further warm the planet.

“Glacial retreat is the big driver behind gas escape here,” said Andy Hodson, a glaciologist at the University Center in Svalbard, Norway.

CBS News traveled to the world’s northernmost and fastest-warming community in Svalbard, Norway. What scientists learn there helps Americans understand the changes happening in the United States. As the Arctic warms, it contributes to rising sea levels along our coasts and instability in the atmosphere that contributes to our extreme weather events.

Across Svalbard, a cluster of islands close to the North Pole, Hodson and his colleagues are discovering methane gas bubbling up through groundwater wells. As part of their research, they checked 123 springs. They found methane in all but one.

“What’s escaping is pretty modest, but what’s down there is pretty big,” Hodson said.

Budgeting for methane

Carbon dioxide emissions from cars and factories is the primary driver of climate change, and can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. While methane is short-lived in the atmosphere, it is far better at trapping heat.

The primary sources of methane comes from production of Fossil fuels and agriculture. More than 100 countries, including the United States, have signed the agreement Global Methane Pledgewhich is a commitment to reduce emissions by 30% by 2030.

But Hodson is concerned that the world’s tally of how much methane is emitted each year does not include the gas coming from the Arctic.

Methane surface in an arctic glacier
As mighty glaciers melt in the Arctic, new research shows that million-year-old methane gas trapped beneath the ice is emerging, with the potential to further warm the planet.

Gabrielle Kleber

“If there is a huge natural flow of methane coming, then that will change our planning for methane management,” he said. “It matters whether we will commit to responsible methane management,” he added.

Permafrost, a frozen blanket of soil, can lock vast amounts of ancient methane gas underground. When a glacier retreats, space can open up at the edge of the permafrost, which then allows gas to escape.

Disappearing glaciers

And on Svalbard, the glaciers are really disappearing.

“It’s dramatic to see the changes from year to year,” said Jack Kohler, an American glaciologist with Norwegian Polar Institutewhich advises the Norwegian government on changes in the Arctic.

Twice a year, Kohler visits a remote outpost called Ny Alesund, home to the world’s northernmost research station. There he measures a glacier called Kronebreen, one of the largest of Svalbard’s 1,500 glaciers. In 30 years, he has observed Kronebreen retreating 2.5 miles.

“We’re documenting the effect of climate change locally here,” Kohler said. “I have colleagues all over the world doing similar things and they all see the same thing,” he added.

At the end of winter, Kohler drives long metal poles into the Kronebreen ice to check the glacier’s health. He starts close to the glacier front and works his way up to where it starts.

Scientists check a glacier
At the end of winter, scientists drive long metal poles into glaciers to check their health. In the summer, after the warm air temperature melts the ice, they come back to check the efforts. The results show how much the ice is melting.

CBS News

In the summer, after the warm air temperature melts the ice, he comes back to check on the efforts. This September the first pole he examined, previously hammered under the ice, was now exposed and showed 8 feet of melt.

“All glaciers lose their ice in one way or another,” he said. “And as long as the loss is equal to what goes into the top, then the geometry of the glacier will remain unchanged.”

But it does not happen. Not only is the Krone glacier retreating at the front, but Kohler’s measurements also show that the glacier is not building enough new ice miles up where it begins.

Kohler said warmer summers on Svalbard mean the glaciers are now melting faster than they can be replenished in winter.

“The problem is when there’s less winter precipitation up there, and then the large amount of melting means there’s an overall loss,” Kohler said, standing close to the glacier.

Kohler and his colleagues modeled future melting conditions for Svalbard’s glaciers. Overall, they finished by 2100 the glaciers will lose their ice twice as fast as they are now.

Go on an adventure to Svalbard, Norway on this special interactive web page and learn how climate change also affects communities across our country.

Meet our experts

Jack Kohler is a glaciologist who has studied the disappearing glaciers on Svalbard for 27 years for the Norwegian Polar Institute. It’s hard work. At the end of winter, Kohler lands on a glacier by helicopter to drive long poles deep into the ice. Six months later, after the summer molting season, he returns to record how much of the effort has now been exposed. The more effort he can see, the more ice has been lost.

Andy Hodson is a methane hunter. As a professor of glaciology, he documents how ancient methane, trapped deep underground, escapes at the edge of glaciers as they retreat. Hodson and his colleagues at the University Center in Svalbard have measured 123 springs around Svalbard and found methane in all but one. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that 150 countries, including the United States, have pledged to reduce. Hodson is concerned that the methane he finds will complicate that effort.

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