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Antarctic Peninsula, 2019.
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Environment

Methane Leak in Antarctic Sea Floor Prompts Fears of Climate Tipping Points


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Methane is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases. The United Nations calls on countries to reduce emissions to limit climate change. You can join us in taking action on related issues here

Scientists have identified the first active leak of methane gas in the seafloor of Antarctica, according to research published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The cause of the leak is unclear, but scientists have so far ruled out climate change because the Ross Sea, where the leak is located, has been relatively shielded from warming temperatures, the Guardian reports.

The leak was worsened by the relative absence of microbes that would normally filter the methane before it enters the atmosphere, which allowed far more of the gas to be released.

“The delay [in methane consumption] is the most important finding,” Andrew Thurber, from Oregon State University in the US, who led the research, told the Guardian. “It is not good news. It took more than five years for the microbes to begin to show up and even then there was still methane rapidly escaping from the sea floor.”

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, with warming potential 84 times greater than carbon dioxide in the first two decades after its release. Carbon dioxide is considered the primary driver of global warming because it’s released at a far greater volume than methane into the atmosphere because of activists that burn fossil fuels.

Massive stores of methane held under permafrost and beneath sea floors, however, could lead to catastrophic global warming in the years ahead if released. 

Marine environments, in particular, are estimated to hold the equivalent of 1,800 gigatons C of methane (gigatons C refers to gigatons of carbon, a unit of measurement used by climate scientists). If all of that methane were released into the atmosphere, the world would blow past the goals of Paris climate agreement

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Scientists know very little about the methane cycle of Antarctica, the Guardian notes. 

The leak was discovered coincidentally by a group of divers in 2011 and was first analyzed in 2016 by a team of scientists. 

Elsewhere in the world, methane leaks have been occurring with alarming frequency. 

In the Arctic, permafrost — essentially frozen ground — is melting, and allowing greenhouse gases trapped underneath to emerge

Methane leaks from abandoned and badly managed fossil fuel infrastructure have increased in recent years, according to the New York Times.

As these leaks converge in the atmosphere, irrevocable tipping points may be reached that could cause runaway global warming. 

Climate tipping points are essentially locked-in negative feedback loops. For example, when warming temperatures cause permafrost to melt it triggers the release of methane gas that causes temperatures to increase further, causing more permafrost loss in an ever-accelerating cycle. 

“If we want to avoid the worst of these bad climate tipping points, we need to activate some positive social and economic tipping points [such as renewable energy] toward what should ultimately be a happier, flourishing, sustainable future for the generations to come,” Tim Lenton, climate researcher at the University of Exeter, told the Guardian

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