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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
McGuire, D. A. et al. Sensitivity of the carbon cycle in the Arctic to climate change. Ecol. Monogr. 79, 523–555 (2009).
Gautier, D. L. et al. Assessment of undiscovered oil and gas in the arctic. Science 324, 1174–1179 (2009).
Collett, T. S. et al. Permafrost-associated natural gas hydrate occurrences on the Alaska North Slope. Mar. Petrol. Geol. 28, 279–294 (2011).
Flores, R. M., Stricker, G. D. & Kinney, S. A. Alaska Coal Geology, Resources, and Coalbed Methane Potential (US Dept. Interior Rep., USGS Digital Data Series DDS-77, v.1.0., 2004).
Isaksen, I. S. A., Gauss, M., Myhre, G., Walter Anthony, K. M. & Ruppel, C. Strong atmospheric chemistry feedback to climate warming from Arctic methane emissions. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 25, GB2002 (2011).
Clarke, R. & Cleverly, R. in Petroleum Migration (eds England, W. & Fleet, A.) 265–271 (Geological Society Special Publication No. 59, GeologicalSociety, 1991).
Hunt, J. M. Petroleum Geochemistry and Geology 2nd edn (W.H. Freeman, 1996).
Lacroix, A. V. Unaccounted for sources of fossil and isotopically-enriched methane and their contribution to the emissions inventory. Chemosphere 26, 507–557 (1993).
Romanovskii, N. N. et al. Environmental evolution in the Laptev Sea region during Late Pleistocene and Holocene. Polarforschung 68, 237–245 (2000).
Etiope, G., Milkov, A. & Derbyshire, E. Did geologic emissions of methane play any role in Quaternary climate change? Glob. Planet. Change 22, 79–88 (2008).
Lerche, I., Yu, Z., Torudbakken, B. & Thomsen, R. O. Ice loading effects in sedimentary basins with reference to the Barents Sea. Mar. Petrol. Geol. 14, 277–338 (1997).
US Environmental Protection Agency. Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions From Natural Sources (US EPA, Office of Atmospheric Programs, Climate Change Division, 2010).
Formolo, M. J., Salacup, J. M., Petsch, S. T., Martini, A. M. & Nüsslein, K. A new model linking atmospheric methane sources to Pleistocene glaciation via methanogenesis in sedimentary basins. Geology 36, 139–142 (2008).
Grassmann, S. et al. pT-effects of Pleistocene glacial periods on permafrost, gas hydrate stability zones and reservoir of the Mittelplate oil field, northern Germany. Mar. Petrol. Geol. 27, 298–306 (2010).
Yakushev, V. S. & Chuvilin, E. M. Natural gas and hydrate accumulations within permafrost in Russia. Cold Regions Sci. Technol. 31, 189–197 (2000).
Bowen, R. G., Dallimore, S. R., Cote, M. M., Wright, J. F. & Lorenson, T. D. in Proc. Ninth International Conference on Permafrost (eds Kane, D. L. &Hinkel, K. M.) 171–176 (Institute of Northern Engineering, 2008).
Walter, K. M., Zimov, S. A., Chanton, J. P., Verbyla, D. & Chapin, F. S. III. Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming. Nature 443, 71–75 (2006).
Bastviken, D. L., Tranvik, J., Downing, J. A., Crill, P. M. & Enrich-Prast, A. Freshwater methane emissions offset the continental carbon sink. Science 331, 50 (2011).
Zimov, S. A. et al. North Siberian lakes: A methane source fueled by Pleistocene carbon. Science 277, 800–802 (1997).
Walter Anthony, K. M. et al. Estimating methane emissions from northern lakes using ice bubble surveys. Limnol. Oceanogr. Methods 8, 592–609 (2010).
Judd, A. G. Natural seabed gas seeps as sources of atmospheric methane. Environ. Geol. 46, 988–996 (2004).
Etiope, G. Natural emissions of methane from geological seepage in Europe. Atm. Environ. 43, 1430–1443 (2009).
Reeburgh, W. S. Oceanic methane biogeochemistry. Chem. Rev. 107, 486–513 (2007).
Etiope, G. & Klusman, R. W. Geologic emissions of methane to the atmosphere. Chemosphere 49, 777–789 (2002).
Etiope, G. & Klusman, R. Microseepage in drylands: Flux and implications in the global atmospheric source/sink budget of methane. Glob. Planet. Change 72, 265–274 (2010).
Etiope, G., Lassey, K. R., Klusman, R. & Boschi, E. Re-appraisal of the fossil methane budget and related emission from geologic sources. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L09307 (2008).
Johnston, G. H. & Brown, R. G. B. Some observations on permafrost distribution at a lake in the MacKenzie Delta, N.W.T., Canada. Arctic 17, 162–175 (1964).
Yoshikawa, K., Hinzman, L. D. & Kane, D. L. Spring and aufeis (icing) hydrology in Brooks Range, Alaska. J. Geophys. Res. 112, G04S43 (2007).
Dyke, A. S., Moore, A. & Robertson, L. Deglaciation of North America (Geological Survey of Canada Open File 1574, 2003).
Jorgenson, T. et al. Proc. Ninth International Conference on Permafrost(eds. Kane, D. L. & Hinkel, K. M.) map in scale 1:7,000,000 (Institute of Northern Engineering, Fairbanks, 2008).
Sauber, J. M. & Molnia, B. F. Glacier ice mass fluctuations and fault instability in tectonically active Southern Alaska. Glob. Planet. Change 42, 279–293 (2004).
Elliott, J. L., Larsen, C. F., Freymueller, J. T. & Motyka, R. J. Tectonic block motion and glacial isostatic adjustment in southeast Alaska and adjacent Canada constrained by GPS measurements. J. Geophys. Res. 115, B09407 (2010).
Burruss, R. C., Lillis, P. G. & Collett, T. S. Geochemistry of Natural Gas, North Slope, Alaska: Implications for Future Oil and Gas Resources, NPRA (US Dept Interior Rep., USGS Open-File Report 03-041, 2003).
Larsen, C. F., Motyka, R. J., Freymueller, J. T., Echelmeyer, K. A. & Ivins, E. R. Rapid viscoelastic uplift in southeast Alaska caused by post-Little Ice Age glacial retreat. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 237, 548–560 (2005).
Molnia, B. F. Late nineteenth to early twenty-first century behavior of Alaskan glaciers as indicators of changing regional climate. Glob. Planet. Change 56, 23–56 (2007).
Claypool, G. E., Threlkeld, C. N. & Magoon, L. B. Biogenic and thermogenic origins of natural gas in Cook Inlet Basin, Alaska. AAPG Bull. 64, 1131–1139 (1980).
Forman, S. L., Marin, L., Van der Veen, C., Tremper, C. & Csatho, B. Little Ice Age and neoglacial landforms at the Inland Ice margin, Isungguata Sermia, Kangerlussuaq, west Greenland. Boreas 36, 341–351 (2007).
Zhuang, Q. et al. Net emissions of CH4 and CO2 in Alaska: Implications for the region’s greenhouse gas budget. Ecol. Appl. 17, 203–212 (2007).
Etiope, G., Fridriksson, T., Italiano, F., Winwarter, W. & Theloke, J. Natural emissions of methane from geothermal and volcanic sources in Europe. J. Volcan. Geoth. Res. 165, 76–86 (2007).
Romanovsky, V. E. et al. in Proc. of the Ninth International Conference on Permafrost (eds Kane, D. L. & Hinkel, K. M.) 1511–1518 (Institute of Northern Engineering, 2008).
Romanovsky, V. E. et al. Thermal state of permafrost in Russia. Permafrost Periglac. Process 21, 136–155 (2010).
Rowland, J. C., Travis, B. J. & Wilson, C. J. The role of advective heat transport in talik development beneath lakes and ponds in discontinuous permafrost. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L17504 (2011).
Arp, C. D. & Jones, B. M. Geography of Alaska Lake Districts: Identification, Description, and Analysis of Lake-Rich Regions of a Diverse and Dynamic State (US Dept Interior, USGS Scientific Investigations Report 40, 2009).
European Environment Agency. EMEP/EEA Air Pollutant Emission Inventory Guidebook. EEA Technical Report (2009).
Brown, J., Ferrians, O. J. Jr, Heginbottom, J. A. & Melnikov, E. in International Permafrost Association Standing Committee on Data Information and Communication (comp.) 2003, Circumpolar Active-Layer Permafrost System, Version 2.0 (eds Parsons, M. & Zhang, T.) (National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology, 1998).
Etiope, G., Baciu, C. L. & Schoell, M. Extreme methane deuterium, nitrogen, and helium enrichment in natural gas from the Homorod seep (Romania). Chem. Geol. 280, 89–96 (2011).
Milkov, A. V. Worldwide distribution and significance of secondary microbial methane formed during petroleum biodegradation in conventional reservoirs. Org. Geochem. 42, 184–207 (2011).
Pavlis, T. L. & Bruhn, R. L. Application of LIDAR to resolving bedrock structure in areas of poor exposure: An example from the STEEP study area, southern Alaska. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 123, 206–217 (2011).
Kampman, N. et al. Pulses of carbon dioxide emissions from intracrustal faults following climatic warming. Nature Geosci. 5, 352–358 (2012).
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.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
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
Dynamic and history of methane seepage in the SW Barents Sea: new insights from Leirdjupet Fault Complex
Scientific Reports (2021)
Scientific Reports (2021)
Current Climate Change Reports (2021)
Science China Technological Sciences (2021)
Nature Communications (2020)