The arctic region is home to large reservoirs of methane, frozen in reservoirs stored in arctic tundra soils or marine sediments, and as the climate warms the methane can be released into the atmosphere where it can add to global warming, researchers said.
Eric Kort of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said research has recently uncovered a surprising and potentially important new source of arctic methane: the ocean itself.
During research flights over the Arctic Ocean from 2009 to 2010, scientists observed increased methane levels while flying at low altitudes north of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, NASA reported Monday.
The source, they determined, was cracks in arctic sea ice and areas of partial sea ice cover that exposed open arctic seawater, allowing the ocean to interact with the air and methane in the surface waters to escape into the atmosphere.
Researchers aren't yet how the methane is being produced, but Kort said biological production from life in arctic surface waters could be a likely source.
The arctic water could be a noticeable global source of methane, he said.
"It's possible that as large areas of sea ice melt and expose more ocean water, methane production may increase, leading to larger methane emissions," he said.
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