Melting ice sheets release tonnes of methane into the atmosphere, study

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THE Greenland Ice Sheet emits tonnes of methane according to a new study, showing that subglacial biological activity impacts the atmosphere far more than previously thought.

An international team of researchers led by the University of Bristol camped for three months next to the Greenland Ice Sheet, sampling the meltwater that runs off a large catchment (> 600 km2) of the Ice Sheet during the summer months. As reported in Nature, using novel sensors to measure methane in meltwater runoff in real time, they observed that methane was continuously exported from beneath the ice.

They calculated that at least six tons of methane was transported to their measuring site from this portion of the Ice Sheet alone, roughly the equivalent of the methane released by up to 100 cows. Professor Jemma Wadham, Director of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, who led the investigation, said: “A key finding is that much of the methane produced beneath the ice likely escapes the Greenland Ice Sheet in large, fast flowing rivers before it can be oxidized to CO2, a typical fate for methane gas which
normally reduces its greenhouse warming potency.”

Methane gas (CH4) is the third most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere after water vapour and carbon dioxide (CO2). Although, present in lower concentrations that CO2, methane is approximately 20-28 times more potent. Therefore smaller quantities have the potential to cause disproportionate impacts on atmospheric temperatures. Most of the Earth’s methane is produced by microorganisms that convert organic matter to CH4 in the absence of oxygen, mostly in wetlands and on agricultural land. For instance in the stomachs of cows and rice paddies. The remainder comes from fossil fuels like natural gas.