Climate Change Briefs: It’s Raining, It’s Pouring, Alaska’s Permafrost Is Thawing

As heat waves roast Norway and Israel, to name but two, methane found seeping from Antarctic seabed jolts climate scientists

Ruth Schuster
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The white microbial mats seen here are telltale signs of areas where methane may be released from underground methane deposits.
The white microbial mats seen here are telltale signs of areas where methane may be released from underground methane deposits.Credit: Andrew Thurber / Oregon State U
Ruth Schuster

Alaska has been experiencing some very rainy summers compared with records going back a century, scientists warn, adding that the winters have “lost” almost three weeks a year to summer. The precipitation augurs ill for the permafrost underlying about 85 percent of the state, according to a study in the Nature journal of Climate and Atmospheric Science. Measurements over five years show that the wetter the summer, the more the permafrost thawed. Melting permafrost releases carbon dioxide and methane; it also spells trouble for buildings and roads erected on it. Moreover, a warmer Alaska may be greener – creating fuel for wildfires of the type afflicting Siberia this year, the scientists warn.

Methane seep found on Antarctic seabed

The changing Alaskan pattern is part of the “Arctic amplification,” so-called because the Arctic is warming there twice as fast as the mid-latitudes. Over at the other pole, scientists were horrified to discover a methane seep in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, which it turns out started in 2011. Investigating that, they then found another. Methane seeps from the seabed elsewhere – this is known. Also known is that it’s an extremely intense greenhouse gas. “The Antarctic has vast reservoirs [of methane] that are likely to open up as ice sheets retreat due to climate change,” stated Andrew Thurber, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and co-author on a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Sea stars gather around a microbial mat that can indicate presence of a methane seep.
Sea stars gather around a microbial mat that can indicate presence of a methane seepCredit: Andrew Thurber / Oregon State U

And how did they discover the seep? By noticing a mat of bacteria that either eat the methane, or live as symbionts with methane consumers. The mat measured 70 meters long by 1 meter across (230 feet by 3 feet). But don’t think bacteria are conveniently eating all the methane. Some is escaping into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

Apropos Antarctica, unfortunately, after warming by almost 3 degrees Celsius in the last 50 years, its western ice sheet isn’t as stable as has been thought, as reported in ZME Science, based on a paper in Nature. As ZME spells out: “We may be reaching a climate tipping point – after which there could be no turning back.”

Catherine Dielemen associated with Merritt Turetsky's research group uses a frost probe to determine the location of surface permafrost beneath the ground surface in interior Alaska
Catherine Dielemen uses a frost probe to determine the location of surface permafrost beneath the ground surface in interior AlaskaCredit: Merritt Turetsky / Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

Flood pattern in Europe is changing

Meanwhile, in the Old World, floods in Europe are growing more severe and they’re happening more in summer, comparing recent decades with the last 500 years, reports an international research project coordinated by the Vienna University of Technology in Nature. From the year 1500 to 1900, flooding was relatively more a cold-weather thing, the researchers say: in centuries of yore, 41 percent of floods in central Europe were in summer, compared with 55 percent today. The past 30 years were among the most flood-prone periods Europe has experienced in 500 years.

Destiny calls

“I can see clearly now the rain is gone,” Johnny Nash sang in 1972. After decades of broad warnings about the degree of global warming (about 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius if carbon dioxide doubled from pre-industrial level), a team of 25 scientists now thinks it can see clearly what’s in store for Earth, based on multiple lines of evidence: average warming in the range of 2.6 degrees and 3.9 degrees Celsius.

June 4, 2016 file photo, a woman, at right, takes photos of the flooded banks of the Seine river in Paris.
The flooded banks of the Seine river in Paris, June 4, 2016 Credit: Francois Mori/AP

Is there a bright side? Well, the group believes the highest projections are as off as the lowest ones. But let’s be frank: even 1.5 degrees warming above the pre-industrial level is catastrophic. Note, they write average surface temperatures have already risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius since record-keeping began in the 1800s.

Norway archipelago reports record temperature

The Arctic archipelago Svalbard recorded its highest-ever temperature this weekend, reports News18. How hot? 21.7 degrees Celsius (71 degrees Fahrenheit) in the late afternoon Saturday, versus the norm of 5 to 8 degrees Celsius at this time of year. On Sunday, it was 18 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, over here, Israel is in for another heat wave this week, following an extreme few days in mid-May. At least the beaches are still open.

Beach in Tel Aviv
Beach in Tel Aviv: Still openCredit: Moti Milrod

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