- Thousands of flammable lakes are popping up all over Alaska and Siberia.
- Rising global temperatures are thawing and melting permafrost in the Arctic, which creates these thermokarst lakes that bubble with methane.
- The methane is flammable, but also getting into the atmosphere where it can contribute to further climate change.
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Thousands of flammable lakes are popping up all over Alaska and Siberia. That’s because rising global temperatures are creating these thermokarst lakes as well as the perfect storm for our changing climate.
Following is a transcript of the video.
If you stab this frozen lake in the right place you can light it on fire. But it’s not the water that’s flammable, it’s actually what’s bubbling up from the lake floor. These aren’t your average lakes. They’re called thermokarst lakes and they’re filled with highly flammable methane gas.
During the summer the gas bubbles to the surface and enters the atmosphere. But in the winter the bubbles get trapped under the ice. So when you stab the frozen surface, it releases pockets of the gas that you can then light up. It may look like a fun party trick but there’s more to this effect than meets the eye. Methane isn’t just highly flammable, it’s also a potent greenhouse gas. 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. And these methane-filled lakes are popping up everywhere in Alaska and Siberia. In 2017 alone 200, new thermokarst lakes were photographed in Siberia. So where are they all coming from?
They’re actually remnants from the last Ice Age. Around 11,000 years ago these areas used to be frozen soil and ice. We call these frozen underground layers today, permafrost. But it’s not permafrost that’s the problem, it’s rising global temperatures which is causing the permafrost to thaw for the first time in thousands of years. Since the 1980s, permafrost in Alaska has warmed by one and a half degrees Celsius. Almost twice as much compared to how much it warmed between 1880 and 1980. And when permafrost thaws, it weakens the ground above it which can destroy roads, damage building foundations, and even split a tree in two. In the process, it releases a buffet of long-dead plants and animals on the lake floor. And that’s where the real trouble starts.
Tiny microbes called mathanogens eat the dead matter and produce, you guessed it, methane. And the more lakes that form means more ancient food for microbes and ultimately more methane that reaches the atmosphere. Overall, thermokarst lakes are estimated to emit 3.8 teragrams of methane each year. Increasing annual methane emissions by up to 63%. And what if all of Earth’s permafrost thawed?
Researchers estimate it will release at least 100 teragrams of methane into the atmosphere, potentially warming the planet enough to cause sea levels to rise anywhere from three to 10 centimeters. For comparison, sea levels have risen just 7.6 millimeters on average over the last 15 years. Contributing to 1.8 billion dollars in annual damage off the coast of New Jersey alone. But right now little is being done to slow the formation of thermokarst lakes around the globe. And if you burn the methane as it bubbles to the surface, it can reduce the greenhouse effect but only slightly.
Since lighting it on fire turns it into carbon dioxide and water vapor, two other potent greenhouse gasses. In the end, it’s up to us to reduce our own emissions. Because lighting lakes on fire isn’t going to be enough.
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