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Atmospheric observations of Arctic Ocean methane emissions up to 82° north


Uncertainty in the future atmospheric burden of methane, a potent greenhouse gas1, represents an important challenge to the development of realistic climate projections. The Arctic is home to large reservoirs of methane, in the form of permafrost soils and methane hydrates2, which are vulnerable to destabilization in a warming climate. Furthermore, methane is produced in the surface ocean3 and the surface waters of the Arctic Ocean are supersaturated with respect to methane4,5. However, the fate of this oceanic methane is uncertain. Here, we use airborne observations of methane to assess methane efflux from the remote Arctic Ocean, up to latitudes of 82° north. We report layers of increased methane concentrations near the surface ocean, with little or no enhancement in carbon monoxide levels, indicative of a non-combustion source. We further show that high methane concentrations are restricted to areas over open leads and regions with fractional sea-ice cover. Based on the observed gradients in methane concentration, we estimate that sea–air fluxes amount to around 2 mg d−1 m−2, comparable to emissions seen on the Siberian shelf. We suggest that the surface waters of the Arctic Ocean represent a potentially important source of methane, which could prove sensitive to changes in sea-ice cover.

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Figure 1: Correlations between 10 s average CH4, CO and altitude for Arctic flights.
Figure 2: Vertical profiles of 10 s average data.
Figure 3: Leads overflown at high latitudes on 15 April 2011 82° N.


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HIPPO was supported by NSF grants ATM-0628575, ATM-0628519 and ATM-0628388 and by NCAR. NCAR is supported by the NSF. Participation by NOAA instruments were supported in part by the NSF through its Atmospheric Chemistry Program to CIRES, NOAA through its Atmospheric Composition and Climate Program and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, and NASA through its Upper Atmosphere Research Program and Radiation Sciences Program. We thank the pilots, mechanics, technicians and scientific crew working on HIPPO. We thank C. Sweeney and D. Fitzjarrald for aiding in interpretation of results and D. Nance for his contributions to H2O observations. The authors gratefully acknowledge the NOAA Air Resources Laboratory for the provision of the HYSPLIT transport and dispersion model and READY website ( used in this publication.

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E.A.K. collected the CH4 data, noted the Arctic features, carried out analysis and wrote the manuscript. S.C.W. led the HIPPO campaign and guided both analysis and writing. B.C.D. and R.J. collected CH4 data. R.S.G. and J.R.S. collected O3 data. M.D., J.W.E., E.J.H., D.F.H., F.L.M and M.A.Z. collected water vapour data. All authors discussed results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to E. A. Kort.

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Kort, E., Wofsy, S., Daube, B. et al. Atmospheric observations of Arctic Ocean methane emissions up to 82° north. Nature Geosci 5, 318–321 (2012).

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