Retreating glaciers expose methane-emitting Arctic springs: study
What’s happening? Rising Arctic temperatures are enabling methane to escape from below the surface of the earth via groundwater springs exposed as glaciers melt, according to research published in the journal Nature Geoscience. The researchers calculated that emissions from the springs across Svalbard in Norway could exceed 2,000 tonnes annually. The study suggests that such emissions are likely to increase as glaciers retreat, providing an underestimated source of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. In combination with other methane emissions from melting ice and thawing frozen ground in the region, the emissions from springs could exacerbate global warming, scientists have warned. (University of Cambridge)
Why does this matter? Methane is responsible for approximately 30% of the increase in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The gas is more powerful than carbon dioxide during its lifespan, although it dissipates more quickly. Reducing methane emissions is one of the most effective near-term ways of restricting global warming.
The new research is significant as it is based on water samples taken from Svalbard, where air temperatures are rising twice as quickly as the Arctic average. According to study lead author Gabrielle Kleber of the University of Cambridge, the location provides “a preview of the potential methane release that could happen at a larger scale across this region.”
Fellow co-author Professor Andrew Hodson of the University Centre in Svalbard argues that the quantities of methane released by the springs will probably “be dwarfed by the total volume of trapped gas” beneath glaciers. As the glaciers will continue to retreat, Professor Hodson argues that “we urgently need to establish the risk of a sudden increase in methane leakage”.
The 2,000 tonnes of methane emitted by the Svalbard springs each year is equivalent to around 10% of the methane emissions of Norway’s annual oil and gas energy industry. Globally, the energy sector is responsible for approximately 40% of total human-caused methane emissions, second only to agriculture, according to the IEA.
US non-profit the Environmental Defense Fund argues that allowing methane emissions to continue poses “an urgent and material financial risk to oil and gas companies”. This is due to the continued development in methane detection technology, coupled with increasingly stringent regulation on methane emissions.
However, despite the near-term risk posed to the sector by such emissions, the IEA argues that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry could be cut by 75% using existing technologies. The $100bn investment required to achieve such cuts would cost less than 3% of the income gained by oil and gas companies in 2022. The IEA also claims that three-quarters of the 260 billion m3 of methane released into the atmosphere annually from oil and gas operations could be captured and brought to market, making leak reduction a positive near-term risk.
Action to reduce such emissions is already the focus of political attention. The COP26 summit in November 2021 saw the launch of the Global Methane Pledge, led by the US and the European Union. Signatories to the pledge agree to take actions designed to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Such a reduction would cut over 0.2C of warming by 2050. The pledge has been signed by over 100 countries, who represent almost 50% of global anthropogenic methane emissions and two-thirds of global GDP.
The 2022 US Inflation Reduction Act also assigned $1.55bn to help the country’s Environmental Protection Agency reduce oil and gas sector methane emissions via financial assistance and emissions charges. The Act requires around 8,000 fuel and industrial gas suppliers and other sources to report their greenhouse gas emissions data. From 2024, suppliers will be exposed to a further near-term risk when they will be charged $900/ton of methane emitted above the agreed threshold, rising to $1,200/ton in 2025 and to $1,500/ton in 2026 and beyond.