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"Arctic Armageddon Needs More Science, Less Hype," was its headline. Studies indicate that cold-country dynamics on climate change are complex. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, a scientific body set up by the eight Arctic rim countries, says overall the Arctic is absorbing more carbon dioxide than it releases. "Methane is a different story," said its 2009 report. The Arctic is responsible for up to 9 percent of global methane emissions. Other methane sources include landfills, livestock and fossil fuel production. Katey Walter Anthony, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been measuring methane seeps in Arctic lakes in Alaska, Canada and Russia, starting here around Chersky 10 years ago. She was stunned to see how much methane was leaking from holes in the sediment at the bottom of one of the first lakes she visited. "On some days it looked like the lake was boiling," she said. Returning each year, she noticed this and other lakes doubling in size as warm water ate into the frozen banks. "The edges of the lake look like someone eating a cookie. The permafrost gets digested in the guts of the lake and burps out as methane," she said in an interview in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, en route to a field trip in Greenland and Scandinavia.
More than 50 billion tons could be unleashed from Siberian lakes alone, more than 10 times the amount now in the atmosphere, she said. But the rate of defrosting is hard to assess with the data at hand. "If permafrost were to thaw suddenly, in a flash, it would put a tremendous amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We would feel temperatures warming across the globe. And that would be a big deal," she said. But it may not happen so quickly. "Depending on how slow permafrost thaws, its effect on temperature across the globe will be different," she said. Permafrost is defined as ground that has stayed below freezing for more than two consecutive summers. In fact, most of Siberia and the rest of the Arctic, covering one-fifth of the Earth's land surface, have been frozen for millennia. During the summer, the ground can defrost to a depth of several feet, turning to sludge and sometimes blossoming into vast fields of grass and wildflowers. Below that thin layer, however, the ground remains frozen, sometimes encased in ice dozens or even hundreds of meters (yards) thick.
As the Earth warms, the summer thaw bites a bit deeper, awakening ice-age microbes that attack organic matter — vegetation and animal remains — buried where oxygen cannot reach, producing methane that gurgles to the surface and into the air. The newly released methane adds to the greenhouse effect, trapping yet more heat which deepens the next thaw, in a spiraling cycle of increasing warmth.