Reduced methane seepage from Arctic sediments during cold bottom-water conditions


Large amounts of methane are trapped within gas hydrate in subseabed sediments in the Arctic Ocean, and bottom-water warming may induce the release of methane from the seafloor. Yet the effect of seasonal temperature variations on methane seepage activity remains unknown as surveys in Arctic seas are conducted mainly in summer. Here we compare the activity of cold seeps along the gas hydrate stability limit offshore Svalbard during cold (May 2016) and warm (August 2012) seasons. Hydro-acoustic surveys revealed a substantially decreased seepage activity during cold bottom-water conditions, corresponding to a 43% reduction of total cold seeps and methane release rates compared with warmer conditions. We demonstrate that cold seeps apparently hibernate during cold seasons, when more methane gas becomes trapped in the subseabed sediments. Such a greenhouse gas capacitor increases the potential for methane release during summer months. Seasonal bottom-water temperature variations are common on the Arctic continental shelves. We infer that methane-seep hibernation is a widespread phenomenon that is underappreciated in global methane budgets, leading to overestimates in current calculations.

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Fig. 1: Bathymetric map of the study area.
Fig. 2: Flare density during warm and cold bottom-water conditions.
Fig. 3: Cross-section schematic of the temporal variation of the GHSZ.
Fig. 4: Interpolated bottom-water temperature distribution in the Arctic.

Data availability

Bottom-water temperatures are accessible from the NOAA–NODC website ( All data needed to evaluate the conclusions in the paper are present in the paper and/or the Supplementary Materials. Additional data are available on the platform Open Research Data at the University of Tromsø—The Arctic University of Norway (


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We thank the crew of R/V Helmer Hanssen during the survey CAGE 16-4. The authors thank the late H. Sahling for invaluable input. This study is a part of Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate (CAGE), Norwegian Research Council grant no. 223259.

Author information

B.F. and H.N. designed the study. B.F. wrote the manuscript in close collaboration with H.N. and with input from P.G.J., M.M., P.S., C.G., A.P., C.B., G.P. and M.F.L. P.G.J. and M.M. provided the details and calculations of methane flow rates. P.S and C.G provided the methane measurements. F.G and H.N. provided the MOx measurements.

Correspondence to Bénédicte Ferré.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Xujia Jiang.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Ship track (purple line) and flare locations during CAGE 16-4 (yellow dots) and from He-387 survey1 (red dots).

a) before and b) after application of filtering procedure. The insets are zoomed area from the white rectangle (c) before filter, d) after filter). The size of the circles in the insets represents the 50 m diameter overlap limit imposed for individual flares. The green area around the ship track the echo-sounder footprint accounting for the swath angle and the pitch and roll of the ship. He-387 survey lines achieve ~100 % of the area and are therefore not shown. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 2 CAGE 16-4 methane flow rates calculated with the FlareHunter software.

Both ship tracks (He-387, red line and CAGE 16-4, grey line) are represented. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 3 Water column biogeochemistry across the MASOX site.

Distribution of methane (upper panels), potential temperature (middle panels) and salinity (lower panels) on May 6th (ac) and May 8th 2016 (df) (see Fig. 1 for transect location). Position of discrete samples are indicated by circles. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 4 Comparison of MOx rates measured at the MASOX station between warm and cold seasons.

Warm seasons (red) are based on the average observations by Steinle et al2. in August 2012 – which we binned in 50 m intervals. Rates from May 2016 are indicated in yellow. Error bars are based on the standard deviation from the replicates analysis at each given depth/bin (n > 6). Note the broken x-axis, highlighting the dramatic reduction of MOx rate during cold season. Source data

Extended Data Fig. 5 Interpolated bottom water temperature along the Norwegian-Svalbard margin.

Colour code and legend are the same as in Fig. 3. The 2 °C isotherm (temperature corresponding to the 3-phase equilibrium at 360 m depth) is represented by the white line. a) From January to April b) From July to October.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Amount of methane estimated from bubbles catcher or echo-sounder surveys compared to this study.

Only current estimations are indicated here, that is we do not compare our data with future scenarios. Refer to S.I.5 for distinction between studies.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–4, Tables 1 and 2, and discussion.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1.

Contains flares coordinates

Source Data Fig. 2.

Contains the depths of flares for each surveys, used to plot the histograms

Source Data supp Fig. 1.

Contains flares coordinates

Source Data supp Fig. 2.

Contains free gas flow rates

Source Data supp Fig. 3.

Contains temperature, salinity and CH4 concentration

Source Data supp Fig. 4.

Contains MOx rates

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Ferré, B., Jansson, P.G., Moser, M. et al. Reduced methane seepage from Arctic sediments during cold bottom-water conditions. Nat. Geosci. (2020).

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