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Methane Time Bomb
Methane—it's not just jokes about cow flatulence anymore. Now it's gigantic plumes of powerful greenhouse gases shooting up from underneath the Arctic sea like planet-toasting death rays.
Methane has up to 100 times the warming power of carbon dioxide-and trillions of tons of it are buried in semi-frozen Arctic marine sediments and permafrost. But the Arctic is melting fast, and some scientists believe it could be completely free of summer ice by the end of this decade. As sea ice melts and permafrost gets less frosty, that buried methane bubbles to the surface. U.S. researchers recently documented 150,000 separate methane seeps in Alaska and Greenland, while a U.S.-Russian team reported finding more than 100 methane fountains-some of them a half mile wide-that are venting the gas directly into the atmosphere.
The leaking of this ancient gas is being called the "methane time bomb," and with good reason. The release of just 1 percent of the methane held in the Arctic permafrost could have a warming effect as large as that of all the human-induced greenhouse emissions so far. Researchers at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have even begun discussing what could be done should that bomb detonate. One radical suggestion: Fight death rays with death rays by shooting the methane with lasers. "If the concentration of methane is high enough . . . then a laser can be used as a remote ignition source," the Livermore team wrote in a paper published in Environmental Science and Technology. Igniting methane converts it to carbon dioxide, reducing, but not eliminating, its climate impact. —D.S.
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