Berkeley Lab scientists find that large undersea methane releases could overwhelm the Arctic Ocean’s ability to consume the gas
A two-part study by scientists from the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Los Alamos National Laboratory provides a detailed scenario based on a novel combination of two computer models of how climate change could impact millions of tons of methane frozen in sediment beneath the Arctic Ocean.
The initial phase of the project found that buried deposits of clathrates, which are icy crystalline compounds that encase methane molecules, will break apart as the global temperature increases and the oceans warm. In the second phase, the scientists found that methane would then seep into the Arctic Ocean and gradually overwhelm the marine environment’s ability to break down the gas. Supplies of oxygen, nutrients, and trace metals required by methane-eating microbes would dwindle year-by-year as more methane enters the water. After three decades of methane release, much of the methane may bubble to the surface, where it has the potential to accelerate climate change.
The initial results of the project were published last year in Geophysical Research Letters; subsequent results were published earlier this year in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
The research counters the view held by some scientists that the oceans will always consume big plumes of methane. Indeed, small-scale methane releases have been seeping from seafloor vents for eons. In these cases, hungry ocean-dwelling microbes quickly oxidize most of the methane before it escapes into the atmosphere. But this cycle will be disrupted if the Arctic region’s vast stores of clathrates break apart and unleash a rash of new methane seeps, the scientists found.
Their finding is based on a first-of-its-kind combination of two computer models. One model, developed by Reagan and Berkeley Lab’s George Moridis in 2008, simulates methane release rates from warming clathrates. Next, these methane release estimates were applied to a marine biochemistry and ocean circulation model developed by Los Alamos National Lab’s Scott Elliott and Matthew Maltrud.
The scientists plugged initial conditions into the simulation, such as the ocean’s background concentration of methane and seabed fluid flow. They then sprinkled a few hypothetical methane plumes around the Arctic continental shelf and in the Okhotsk Sea and Bering Sea. These areas hold extensive shallow clathrate deposits that are considered by scientists to be very susceptible to instability during the first few decades of global warming. Some may already be dissociating.
They turned on the methane plumes and ran the simulation for three decades to predict what would happen during the early stages of climate change-driven ocean warming.
The result is a scenario that shows that in some places, such as near plumes in the Okhotsk Sea and Bering Sea, the oxygen level plummets. Localized acidification also sets in. The environment becomes inhospitable for many organisms, including microbes that like to consume methane. The scientists hope to conduct further simulations to better estimate the amount of methane, now locked in clathrates under the Arctic Ocean, which could reach the atmosphere due to ocean warming.
This research was supported in part by the DOE Office of Science.
Scott Elliott, Mathew Maltrud, Matthew Reagan, George Moridis, Philip Cameron-Smith (2011) Marine methane cycle simulations for the period of early global warming. Journal of Geophysical Research doi: 10.1029/2010JG001300
Scott Elliott, Matthew Reagan, George Moridis, Philip Cameron Smith (2010) Geochemistry of clathrate-derived methane in Arctic ocean waters. Geophysical Research Letters doi: 10.1029/2010GL043369