Here Dr. Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDCprovides some answers to questions about methane and frozen ground.
What is methane?
Methane is a gas made up of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. It’s the same natural gas that some people use to heat their homes, and it also exists naturally in the atmosphere. Scientists worry that if methane increases in the atmosphere, it could cause even more warming than carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Although there is much less methane in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it traps heat about twenty times as efficiently as carbon dioxide.
What are the sources of methane in the Arctic?
There are two potential sources of methane in the Arctic. The first source of methane is called methyl clathrate. Methyl clathrates are molecules of methane that are frozen into ice crystals. They can form deep in the Earth or underwater, but it takes very special conditions, with high pressure and low temperature, to make them. If the temperature or pressure changes, the ice that imprisons the methane will break apart, and the methane will escape. We’re not sure how much methane is trapped in methyl clathrates, or how much is in danger of escaping.
The other major source of methane in the Arctic is the organic matter frozen in permafrost. This is the source of methane that I study. The organic matter in permafrost contains a lot of carbon. It is made of dead plants and animals that have been frozen deep in permafrost for thousands of years. As long as this organic matter remains frozen, it will stay in the permafrost. However, if it thaws, it will decay, releasing carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere. This is why permafrost carbon is important to climate study.
Wikipedia: The National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC, is a United States information and referral center in support of polar and cryospheric research. NSIDC archives and distributes digital and analog snow and ice data and also maintains information about snow cover, avalanches, glaciers, ice sheets, freshwater ice, sea ice, ground ice, permafrost, atmospheric ice, paleoglaciology, and ice cores.
NSIDC is part of the University of Colorado Boulder Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), and is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)