Study: Methane emissions rise as arctic sea ice melts

The vicious cycle repeats as a warming climate melts more and more sea ice.

By Brooks Hays
Study: Methane emissions rise as arctic sea ice melts
Scientists tread carefully through a seemingly endless landscape of ice, sea, and meltwater in the Canada Basin of the Arctic on July 22, 2005. The blanket of ice coating Earth's northernmost seas was thin and ragged in July, setting a record low for sea ice extent for the month. Sea ice stretched across only 3.06 million square miles whereas the long-term July average is 3.9 million. Scientist note that this breakup of ice is a result of global warming. Photo made from the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy. File Photo by NOAA/Jeremy Potter/UPI | License Photo

LUND, Sweden, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- Researchers in Sweden say climate change in the arctic is caught in a vicious circle -- a feedback loop of warming and melting, melting and warming.

According to a new study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, melting sea ice in the arctic is encouraging methane emissions.


Like a windshield reflector, sea ice serves to deflect the sun's warming rays. When the ice melts, the ocean's surface waters absorb more heat, raising temperatures in the region and bolstering microorganisms in the arctic tundra that give off methane.

That methane -- which is a more efficient greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide -- in turn, further exacerbates climate change and the warming of the atmosphere. The vicious circle repeats as a warming climate melts more sea ice, releasing more methane.

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Researchers at Sweden's Lund University, with the help of American and Dutch scientists, used advanced statistical models to predict how sea ice losses effect temperature and precipitation patterns -- two significant factors in determining the levels of biological activity in the arctic tundra.

"While numerous studies have shown the effects of sea ice loss on the ocean, there are only a few that show how this oceanic change affects ecosystems on the surrounding land," study author Frans-Jan Parmentier, a geophysical scientist at Lund, said in a news release. "Our research shows that to understand the impact of climate change on the Arctic, the ocean and land cannot be viewed separately."


A recent report from NASA, this summer's sea ice minimum was the fourth smallest on record. The ten smallest have all been recorded within the last 11 years.

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Each year, arctic sea ice becomes more weakened, making it easier to melt the following summer. Imperfections in portions of the ice that use to be thick and resilient become more vulnerable to warming waters over time.

"Sea ice decline is one of the most visible consequences of climate change, and has a tremendous impact on the arctic climate," Frans-Jan Parmentier added. "Since the 1990s, the arctic has been losing sea ice at a tremendous rate -- about 14 percent per decade. The expectation is that with further sea ice decline, temperatures in the arctic will continue to rise, and so will methane emissions from northern wetlands."

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