Something's in the air above Alaska. Scientists believe that human-driven climate change has already contributed to the melting of frozen Arctic tundra which, in turn, may be hastening the release of carbon dioxide and methane buried inside that tundra in the billions of tons. To discover just how much of these greenhouse gases is being released—and methane is 25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to take samples. They're flying NOAA's air sampling devices in Coast Guard planes over Alaska through November.
Some of the greenhouse gases they're looking for are from natural sources, others from activities like oil drilling in Prudoe Bay. The data they collect will help NOAA determine how quickly these emissions might increase and begin to cause irreversible changes. It's not yet certain how the future emissions picture will look in Alaska—whether the dried-out tundra will release large stores of carbon dioxide, or whether melting ice will allow microbes to eat organic matter and burp up huge amounts of methane.
"It's important to locate natural sources and measure how much methane and carbon dioxide are being released now so we can watch for signs of increasing emissions," says Colm Sweeney of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in a press release. "Recent observations could be isolated cases or part of a vast regional change in emissions that could accelerate climate warming to a more dangerous pace. We don't know yet."
The release of methane in Alaska has been documented for some time now. Large methane "bubbles" have been found near Arctic lakes and last year scientists discovered methane "vents" releasing gas from the Arctic Ocean floor.