NASA Flights Detect Millions of Arctic Methane Hotspots

From NASA

Feature | February 18, 2020

Thermokarst lake in Alaska

The image shows a thermokarst lake in Alaska. Thermokarst lakes form in the Arctic when permafrost thaws. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Esprit Smith,
NASA’s Earth Science News Team

The Arctic is one of the fastest warming places on the planet. As temperatures rise, the perpetually frozen layer of soil, called permafrost, begins to thaw, releasing methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These methane emissions can accelerate future warming—but to understand to what extent, we need to know how much methane may be emitted, when and what environmental factors may influence its release.

That’s a tricky feat. The Arctic spans thousands of miles, many of them inaccessible to humans. This inaccessibility has limited most ground-based observations to places with existing infrastructure—a mere fraction of the vast and varied Arctic terrain. Moreover, satellite observations are not detailed enough for scientists to identify key patterns and smaller-scale environmental influences on methane concentrations.

In a new study, scientists with NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), found a way to bridge that gap. In 2017, they used planes equipped with the Airborne Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer – Next Generation (AVIRIS – NG), a highly specialized instrument, to fly over some 11,583 square miles (30,000 square kilometers) of the Arctic landscape in the hope of detecting methane hotspots. The instrument did not disappoint.

“We consider hotspots to be areas showing an excess of 3,000 parts per million of methane between the airborne sensor and the ground,” said lead author Clayton Elder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “And we detected 2 million of these hotspots over the land that we covered.”

The paper, titled “Airborne Mapping Reveals Emergent Power Law of Arctic Methane Emissions,” was published Feb. 10 in Geophysical Research Letters.

Within the dataset, the team also discovered a pattern: On average, the methane hotspots were mostly concentrated within about 44 yards (40 meters) of standing bodies of water, like lakes and streams. After the 44-yard mark, the presence of hotspots gradually became sparser, and at about 330 yards (300 meters) from the water source, they dropped off almost completely.

The scientists working on this study don’t have a complete answer as to why 44 yards is the “magic number” for the whole survey region yet, but additional studies they’ve conducted on the ground provide some insight.

“After two years of ground field studies that began in 2018 at an Alaskan lake site with a methane hotspot, we found abrupt thawing of the permafrost right underneath the hotspot,” said Elder. “It’s that additional contribution of permafrost carbon – carbon that’s been frozen for thousands of years—that’s essentially contributing food for the microbes to chew up and turn into methane as the permafrost continues to thaw.”

Scientists are just scratching the surface of what is possible with the new data, but their first observations are valuable. Being able to identify the likely causes of the distribution of methane hotspots, for example, will help them to more accurately calculate this greenhouse gas’s emissions across areas where we don’t have observations. This new knowledge will improve how Arctic land models represent methane dynamics and therefore our ability to forecast the region’s impact on global climate and global climate change impacts on the Arctic.

Elder says the study is also a technological breakthrough.

“AVIRIS-NG has been used in previous methane surveys, but those surveys focused on human-caused emissions in populated areas and areas with major infrastructure known to produce emissions,” he said. “Our study marks the first time the instrument has been used to find hotspots where the locations of possible permafrost-related emissions are far less understood.”

More information on ABoVE can be found here:

https://above.nasa.gov/

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57 thoughts on “NASA Flights Detect Millions of Arctic Methane Hotspots

    • Who cares? Methane only has an about 5 year half-life in the atmosphere and also has a pathetically sparse IR absorption spectrum, which means it is like putting a single fence post and no fencing in your front yard and claiming it will keep the dog in the yard. All of the purported “greenhouse gases” are terrible in absorbing IR radiation. Water vapor and CO2 are indeed more properly termed “radiative gases.” In effect, no gas at any concentration can warm the atmosphere by their IR interactions.

      • Charles, the methane disappears 44 yards from lakes above which methane exceeds 3000ppm! I’d say methane breaks down in seconds!!

        • It’s a vertical column of methane …..it doesn’t seem to be spreading horizontally from the source. Also consider these are remote sensing devices on the satellite and we are based on pixels …who knows what size they are. Need a lot more detail on these ponds , maybe using ground observations

  1. Melting permafrost on a grand scale? What a hoot! In 1967 I was a field assistant to a geologist in Alaska (see previous comments about big bears in Alaska Range) and we spent three weeks at a mercury prospect on Egnaty Creek, on the Kuskokwim River below Red Devil (named after red cinnabar, the common sulfide of mercury). We had a partner, the US Bureau of Mines, who were going to experiment with efficient ways to remove permafrost to allow prospecting activities to proceed. What a shock! We also had Mr. Miscovich, inventor of the IntelliGiant, the curved water canon atop fire fighting vehicles, who had set up one of his famous water canon monitors (his advice, cut with water speed, and transport with volumen). We bulldozed it, we drilled holes and put in dynamite (60% rock dynamite, not that sissy 40% stump stuff), we water cannoned it, we hit it with picks and shovels, bottom line: the permafrost won! We abandoned the project and left Alaska. I would not worry about any significant amount of permafrost melting anytime soon, maybe a little here and there locally, but that stuff is tuff!

    • Ahh 1967!

      In many ways, those were the days. Before the coming ice age and before it gave way to the impending global warming heatpocalypse.

      Back then we could enjoy the normal weather. And seasonal tornadoes and hurricanes didn’t riddle us with guilt for motoring with combustion engines and conditioning the inside of our homes for hot or cold.

      Who would of thought, looking out to the 21st century, our leadership would be leading us back into the dark ages were we will need to clear cut our forests for fuel.

  2. Methane (CH4) is abundant through the solar system, on the large planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) it is thought that methane is product of various chemical processes in the early stages of planetary formation. In the Earth’s atmosphere with concentration of tiny 1.8 ppm more than 90% is of bio origin. This is a living planet, nothing to be concerned about, methane might be useful as an energy source once global cooling sets in.

    • Methane is also clearly made by Earth’s core, being a major component of fracking natural gas, with the methane percolating up the the ocean floor all over the planet.

      • Certainly methane is made by several processes, but that associated with crude oil is most likely made by the same process.

      • So there’s a method of turning liquid rock into methane??????
        Methane is not percolating up every where from the ocean floor, just those areas where organic materials have been deposited from above.

        • So in the Arctic… how did did those organic materials get to be permafrost anyway? Was the Arctic once temperate?

          • Was the arctic once temperate?

            Yes.

            Not that it matters, the arctic has a short growing season every year, that material builds up year after year.

        • MarkW

          “So there’s a method of turning liquid rock into methane??????
          Methane is not percolating up every where from the ocean floor, just those areas where organic materials have been deposited from above.”

          Try reading Wikipedia’s entry on Thomas Gold, whose lectures I used to attend. Here is an extract:

          “He began his investigation by studying how earthquakes facilitated the migration of methane gas from the deep Earth to the surface.[39] He speculated that a large enough earthquake would fracture the ground, thus opening up an “escape route” for gas. Gold believed that this would explain the number of unusual phenomena associated with earthquakes, such as fires, flares, earthquake lights and gas emissions. With his colleague Steven Soter, Gold constructed a map of the world depicting major oil-producing regions and areas with historical seismic activity. Several oil-rich regions, such as Alaska, Texas, the Caribbean, Mexico, Venezuela, the Persian Gulf, the Urals, Siberia, and Southeast Asia, were found to be lying on major earthquake belts. Gold and Soter suggested that these belts may explain the upward migration of gases through the ground, and subsequently, the production of oil and gas fields”

    • As usual the implication is the trend line. A previously unknown quantity, one data point and panic ensues.

    • Right. This study is good work by itself but means nothing unless you can show that these hotspots are something new which wasn’t there before, or are much more common than ever before. If that was the case, then it would indeed be cause for concern, as it could be a ‘tipping point’ confirmation. But then you’d have to explain why this tipping point did not occur in the recent past when the Earth’s temperatures were also this high.

      Did the study address this point?

  3. Than again if all these gasses would warm the Earth Why would it be bad. Isn’t it time we get out of the 3.5 million Ice Age ?
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5f/All_palaeotemps.svg

    But couldn’t this have something to do with the uplifting of some parts of Alaska since it no longer has 2 miles of ice on top of it?
    https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/sltrends/slrmap.html

    Also most of Alaska had no ice cover and must have had in summer more or less the same temperature as today taken in account the much bigger land mass because of lower sea levels that made the landbridge possible.
    https://atmos.washington.edu/~dennis/Hartm.ice.new.gif?73,76

  4. I just finished reading an article linked on Real Clear Science detailing evidence that now-arid, as in hyperarid, areas of the Sahara had extensive fish during the early Holocene, and humans there at the time primarily at fish until switching to herding animals. That was only possible because it was much warmer then, and the African savanna extended much further to the north. More evidence of the Holocene Optimum.

    My question is, when the world was warmer than the present at various times, why was there never a “methane bomb”? Could it be that a lot less methane is actually stored/released from permafrost than we think, methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is too short, or maybe both?

    • And the Holocene Optimum was just one of the few warm moments of the last 3.5 year old Ice Age. The Methane Bomb must have made life impossible for most of the last 300 million years when temperature was even higher . And don’t even think there could be life in the acid oceans because of higher CO2 level.

  5. The total area of permafrost that existed beyond the the southern limit of continental ice in the northern hemisphere at the end of the last ice age was much greater than the area of permafrost now. It seems there was a methane blip when it thawed but nothing serious. So surely there shouldn’t be anything to worry about from today’s permafrost.

  6. New paper published yesterday claims:
    “Insignificant effect of Arctic amplification on the amplitude of midlatitude atmospheric waves”
    Russell Blackport* and James A. Screen College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK.
    https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/8/eaay2880

    I think they mean polar jet stream, highly technical with model-observations correlations, had no time to read, but it may be above my pay grade anyway.

  7. These methane emissions can accelerate future warming—…

    How much warming might that be? We aren’t told. I’ll make an educated guess, not very much, so little in fact as to be essentially nothing.

    Elsewhere on the internet: Trends in Atmospheric Methane you can figure out that methane is going up six or seven parts per billion. What you won’t find is how much that will translate into increased temperature. Various local governments have begun to ban methane in new residential construction LINK This is being done in the name of climate change without understanding how much methane affects global temperature or any other aspects of climate.

  8. Excerpt from article:

    “We consider hotspots to be areas showing an excess of 3,000 parts per million of methane between the airborne sensor and the ground,” said lead author Clayton Elder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    “HA”, …. I betcha iffen Clayton Elder flew that airborne sensor over central/southern West Virginia it would show lots of methane “hotspots” because of all the NG (methane) being released into the air from natural seeps, gas and oil wells and coal mining.

    Excerpt from article:

    Within the dataset, the team also discovered a pattern: On average, the methane hotspots were mostly concentrated within about 44 yards (40 meters) of standing bodies of water, like lakes and streams.

    Well, “DUH”, ……. now who would have thunk that possible, …… methane trapped deep underground escaping through bodies of liquid water rather than escaping through solidly frozen ground.

    • Coach Springer … 4:43 am
      I’m seeing a bit of conflation of “new way of seeing” with “never before seen.”

      BINGO!

      From my file of factoids, quotes and smart remarks:

      Observing something for the first time, doesn’t mean it has never happened before.

  9. All those lakes should become a new wildlife paradise- loaded with fish, invertebrates, water loving birds. And the warming tundra will grow trees and shrubs which will sequester vast amounts of CO2. Many species of wildlife will thrive in the new greening forests.

  10. “Arctic is one of the fastest warming places on the planet” And yet it is still well below freezing during the majority of the year. Imagine that. Arctic Sea still covered with ice! Film at never!

  11. It’s spring and the arctic is warming. Obviously CO2 is to blame.

    PS: How do these levels compare to say, 100 years ago?

    • Dont know about Alaska but in London it was much nicer than it is today
      The Times, February 20, 1920
      “Probably the oldest among us can hardly remember so early in the year such a wonderful foretaste of spring. While New York has been scourged by blizzards, London has been basking in golden sunshine and under blue skies that would intoxicate even Monte Carlo. Early in the morning the sleeper is awakened by the birds singing in the branches as only English songbirds can.”

  12. We live in an ice age, fortunately a warmer interglacial of the ice age or most of us would not be here. If the frost is melting, it is not perma.

  13. Some methane made of old carbon is burping up. Meh. Not the first time, and not the last time. Happen in the Sacto Delta all the time. That’s why the Delta islands are sinking about 15 mm / yr.

  14. ” a new study, scientists with NASA’s Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE)”.

    Ya see NASA, you shouldn’t name a project with the the word “vulnerability” in it! Now you are obliged to make mountains out of molehills to keep the budget replenished.

    Oh, and for the meaning of the methane disappearing within 44 yards of the lake sources, the most likely bet is it doesn’t persist in the atmosphere for long like you think it does. How about the <2 ppm content of the atmosphere just being an equilibrium between continuous ubiquitous emissions and breakdown into CO2 and water? I hope this helps.

    Vulnerability? You have actually eased my mind on methane supposed dangers. Fly your drone over a lone herd of cows and coroborate this interesting 44 yards limit. That was your real discovery. We could then kill all the cows and find out if the 2ppm limit is real.

  15. Methane is harmless to the environment

    “… the contribution of methane to the annual increase in forcing is one tenth (30/300) that of carbon dioxide. The net forcing increase from CH4 and CO2 increases is about 0.05 W m-2 year . Other things being equal, this will cause a temperature increase of about 0.012 C year. Proposals to place harsh restrictions on methane emissions because of warming fears are not justified by facts…”

    http://co2coalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Methane-and-Climate_Happer_vanWijngaarden11-25-19.pdf

  16. Oh, and the acronym A BOVE wouldn’t have been inspired by “a bovine” now would it? Probably unwitting, but you see what happens when you have cow flatulence on your minds. I just know this little gizmo is going to get a lot of work in the aggie sector.

  17. From the article: “After two years of ground field studies that began in 2018 at an Alaskan lake site with a methane hotspot, we found abrupt thawing of the permafrost right underneath the hotspot,” said Elder. “It’s that additional contribution of permafrost carbon – carbon that’s been frozen for thousands of years—that’s essentially contributing food for the microbes to chew up and turn into methane as the permafrost continues to thaw.”

    They appear to be claiming that permafrost that hasn’t melted for thousands of years, is now melting because of the warm temperatures.

    I think I see a discrepancy here: It was warmer in the 1930’s in the arctic than it is now, so how did that 1000-year-old permafrost survive that warmth, but it’s melting now at a lower temperature?

  18. Warm interglacial epochs are a geologically brief natural phenomena, occurring cyclically within longer glacial periods. The not-so-permafrost has melted and refrozen many times during previous interglacials. None of the prior not-so-permafrost melting episodes resulted in ‘run away global warming’, due to methane or any other agent. The planet atmosphere has always reverted back to grindingly cold glacial periods. It will do so again. We are just too ignorant, naive, and uninformed to predict with any certainty when this next transition will occur.

    The new knowledge gained from ABoVE is interesting and adds to our data treasury, on our human journey of self-discovery. Recognize our geologically brief, warm Holocene interglacial as the cyclical, natural phenomena it is. Set aside your negative thoughts and irrational fears… and ‘tune out’ the attention seeking little boys crying “Wolf! Wolf!” Better yet, give them a good spanking, for their feral, false alarm dishonesty!

  19. Did someone say “we detected 2 million of these hotspots”
    did they also say “fly over some ….30,000 square kilometers”
    no I know i wasnt very good at working with fluxions and Napier`s whatsits at school but
    dividing one by the other I find 67 methane seeps per square km
    that gives an average spacing of 123m
    it was also mentioned streams (greater than zero length) and other bodies where methane “at about … 300 meters……they dropped off….”
    doing a quick scribble and a bit of head scratching gives me therefore 600 m minimum to next `hotspot`
    SO average spacing drops towards 40m !
    not convinced yet that theirfinding makes sound reading
    is this what my maths teacher really meant by `polar notation`

  20. What a great instrument! First time out! I wonder if the resolution of this thing is good enough to be calibrated in cow farts per square meter? Or just CF/hectare? It’s important that we have measurements that are truly meaningful if we are to calculate how many cows need to be killed to compensate for the man-made methane increase from melting tundra. There is no end to the grant possibilities. /sarc

  21. I hate to spoil anyone’s fun but “permafrost melting” is not possible – if it melts it is not permafrost any more. Perma – frost. It is both frost and permanent.
    What the articles seem to be talking about is the surface melt which occurs every year when the sum comes north (or the North part of the earth tilts toward the sun – depending on your perspective). When the frozen part of the surface melts the dead plant material decomposes eureka – methane! This surface melting is neither unique nor new. As far as we know it has happened since way before man evolved.

  22. If I recall correctly, some of the largest natural gas (methane) accumulations in the world are biogenic methane trapped beneath permafrost in Siberia.

    In about 1985, a USGS geochemist lectured about natural sources of methane and cited termites as the greatest natural source with rice paddies and ruminants high on the list. Seems like the list has changed = progress.

    Biogenic methane occurs everywhere there is organic matter in an anoxic environment with some liquid water and temperature of less than about 80 degrees C. The methanogens are everywhere waiting for the opportunity to flourish. Of course, “everywhere” an overstatement but not by much.

  23. “Hotspots covered 0.2% of the surveyed area, which was 11,000 sq mi .. concentrated in the wetland‐upland ecotone,..” etc.

    .2% isn’t much, and likely these ponds have been releasing methane for a LONG time, so this isn’t necessarily a recent event, without a timeline of real permafrost melt, these results are meaningless..

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