DATE: November 20, 2018
SNIP: Huge amounts of methane are being released from a glacier connected to Katla—one of Iceland’s largest and most active volcanoes.
Researchers found that up to 41 tonnes of methane is released through meltwater from the Sólheimajökull glacier every day over the summer months. The study, published in Scientific Reports, is the first to show methane is released from glaciers on such a large scale.
Methane is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. It is becoming of increasing concern because of its potential to contribute to climate change. In Arctic regions, methane is locked up in permafrost—ground that is permanently frozen. As global temperatures increase, the soil thaws and methane is released, contributing to further warming.
Identifying and understanding previously unrecognized sources of methane—like the latest study on glaciers—is hugely important to climate change models. If this volcano and glacier is representative of other similar systems, it could mean masses of previously unaccounted methane are being released into the atmosphere.
The team took water samples from the edge of the lake in front of the glacier to measure the concentrations of methane. They found that compared to other nearby rivers and sediments, the levels were far higher. The highest concentrations of methane were at the point where the river emerges from beneath the glacier.
Further analysis allowed them to find the exact sources of the methane—microbiological activity on the glacier bed. When methane comes into contact with oxygen it normally combines to form carbon dioxide. However, at Sólheimajökull when the meltwater reaches the bed of the glacier it comes into contact with gasses from the volcano. These gases lower the oxygen content in the water, allowing the methane produced to be dissolved and transported out of the glacier.
Researchers say that while the study only focuses on Sólheimajökull and Katla, there are many other ice-covered active volcanoes that could produce methane in a similar way. The team now hopes to carry out similar research in Greenland or Antarctica.
If this is the case, and global warming continues at its current rate, the consequences could be concerning.