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Geologic methane seeps along boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw and melting glaciers

Abstract

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, accumulates in subsurface hydrocarbon reservoirs, such as coal beds and natural gas deposits. In the Arctic, permafrost and glaciers form a ‘cryosphere cap’ that traps gas leaking from these reservoirs, restricting flow to the atmosphere. With a carbon store of over 1,200 Pg, the Arctic geologic methane reservoir is large when compared with the global atmospheric methane pool of around 5 Pg. As such, the Earth’s climate is sensitive to the escape of even a small fraction of this methane. Here, we document the release of 14C-depleted methane to the atmosphere from abundant gas seeps concentrated along boundaries of permafrost thaw and receding glaciers in Alaska and Greenland, using aerial and ground surface survey data and in situ measurements of methane isotopes and flux. We mapped over 150,000 seeps, which we identified as bubble-induced open holes in lake ice. These seeps were characterized by anomalously high methane fluxes, and in Alaska by ancient radiocarbon ages and stable isotope values that matched those of coal bed and thermogenic methane accumulations. Younger seeps in Greenland were associated with zones of ice-sheet retreat since the Little Ice Age. Our findings imply that in a warming climate, disintegration of permafrost, glaciers and parts of the polar ice sheets could facilitate the transient expulsion of 14C-depleted methane trapped by the cryosphere cap.

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Figure 1: The effect on lake ice formation of subcap and superficial seeps.
Figure 2: Alaska map of surveyed methane seeps.
Figure 3: Distinctions between seep types based on bubbling rates and isotope compositions.
Figure 4: Subcap (macroseep) and superficial methane seep emissions in Alaska.
Figure 5: Spatial association of subcap-seep sites with fluvial deposits in northern continuous permafrost and with faults near glaciers in southcentral Alaska.
Figure 6: Subcap seep methane stable isotopes and radiocarbon age in relation to faults in the Lake Eyak region of southcentral Alaska.

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Acknowledgements

We thank researchers at the Alaska DGGS and the USGS for contributions to data sets;D. Whiteman, L. McFadden and A. Strohm for field assistance; L. Oxtoby, C. Langford and D. Fields for laboratory work. V. Romanovsky, F. S. Chapin III, T. Pavlis and G. Etiope provided valuable comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by DOE #DE-NT0005665, NASA Carbon Cycle Sciences, the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Icy Worlds node, the NSF Division of Earth Sciences and the NSF Arctic Division.

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K.M.W.A. wrote the paper. K.M.W.A. and P.A. designed the experiment, conducted the field work and performed the seep analyses. G.G. provided expertise on cryosphere processes. Isotopic analysis was conducted in the laboratory of J.C. All authors commented on the analysis, interpretation and presentation of the data, and were involved in the writing.

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Correspondence to Katey M. Walter Anthony.

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Walter Anthony, K., Anthony, P., Grosse, G. et al. Geologic methane seeps along boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw and melting glaciers. Nature Geosci 5, 419–426 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1480

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