Antarctica’s seabed is leaking methane into the atmosphere

It’s a worrying sign for the climate emergency, but it does give us an unprecedented research opportunity in Antarctica.

Methane leakage on the sea floor has been recorded in Antarctica for the first time ever.

The seep was discovered in a 30ft deep site known as Cinder Cones in McMurdo Sound and was led by Andrew Thurber from Oregon State University. Methane isn’t being released in bubbles but instead is ‘coming out in what we call diffuse flows, it’s just dissolving in the water’, Thurber states.

Scientists have known about the large quantities of methane that are stored underneath the sea for a while, but large scale leakages in the Southern Ocean were only first monitored in South Georgia in 2014. This is the first time it’s been recorded on the Antarctic continent.

Microbes usually consume excess methane when it leaks out from the seafloor, which stops it from entering the atmosphere, but it seems that there are an unusually small amount in this area of Antarctica. A lack of microbes means that excess methane is almost guaranteed to be escaping, which is worrying for the climate emergency.

Many current climate models and predictions do not take this microbe inefficiency into account. ‘The delay [in methane consumption] is the most important finding, and it’s not good news’ says Thurber. This new discovery could be evidence to suggest that underwater methane leakage may be a more urgent problem than first thought if microbes don’t show up.

The good news is that scientists now have a unique opportunity to better understand the methane cycle in Antarctica. This seep provides a natural laboratory to study and research its effects and we may soon have a much clearer picture of the continent’s seabed and ecosystems.

We can also update our current climate predictions and have a more accurate picture of what to expect over this century, which is always a good thing. It’s far better to know about an unexpected problem now than have it crop up out of surprise fifty years down the line. Sudden methane eruptions with no preparations would not be fun.

Researchers won’t be able to hop over to the continent just yet, though. We’ll have to wait until coronavirus clears up as Antarctica is currently coronavirus free and travel is severely restricted.

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