THE METHANE LAKE

THE METHANE LAKE

The Esieh Lake, North Alaska is a strange one. It never fully freezes. It hisses and it literally boils with ancient gas. If you light a fire over its surface, flames will burst towards you. And all that is because it’s full of methane.

THE LAKE THAT BREATHS FIRE

Katey Walter Anthony, an aquatic ecosystem ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, tried to light a fire over – in her 2010 YouTube video. She’s been studying Esieh Lake for the better part of a decade. And in fact, she also named it.

Walter Anthony knows the cause of the lake’s odd behavior. The culprit is a constant seep of the greenhouse gas called methane, freeing an ancient reservoir of permafrost, that’s deep below the tundra. While most of Esieh Lake has an average depth of about 3 feet, the sections where the biggest methane bubbles are seeping out plunge down to up to 50 feet.

Because of rising global temperatures, the permafrost is thawing, the scientist said, and it’s slowly carving a hole through the bottom of the lake. So more than 2 tons of methane, come gushing out every day. And that is equivalent to the emissions of about 6,000 dairy cows.

METHANE LAKES COULD DOUBLE GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS

In 2014, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado led a study which concluded that carbon released from thawing permafrost could increase global warming by about 8 percent. So, it’s contributing with about 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit to the predicted increase of 7 to 9 degrees F by the year 2100.

Methane emissions in lakes like Esieh have been largely overlooked until very recently. In a study of several underground Arctic lakes published Aug. 15 in the journal Nature Communications, researchers estimated that methane-seeping lakes could double previous estimates of permafrost-caused warming. And if Arctic methane emissions are as serious as Walter Anthony and her colleagues predict, the increase in temperature could come much sooner.

“These lakes speed up permafrost thaw,” Walter Anthony told The Washington Post. “It’s an acceleration.”

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