View of the Collins Glacier in King George Island, Antarctica. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon travelled to Antarctica to see the effects of climate change on melting glaciers. (Photo : UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)
A study published this week by the journal Nature tells of a "vast reservoir" of the potent greenhouse gas methane may be trapped under ice sheets in the Antarctic and if this ice continues its fast-paced melting, the gas could be released into the atmosphere and contribute considerably to global warming.
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"It is easy to forget that thirty-five million years ago, when the current period of antarctic glaciation started, this continent was teeming with life," said Slawek Tulaczyk, a co-author of the study and professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California - Santa Cruz. "Some of the organic material produced by this life became trapped in sediments, which then were cut off from the rest of the world when the ice sheet grew. Our modeling shows that over millions of years, microbes may have turned this old organic carbon into methane."
According to their research, the authors of this study estimate that up to four billion tons of methane could be hidden underneath the Antarctic ice. One half of the West Antarctic ice sheet and one quarter of the East Antarctic ice sheet sit on pre-global sedimentary basins that may contain up to 21,000 billion tons of carbon, the study shows. As the ice melts, it's been deemed possible that the release of this methane gas could have a significant impact on future global warming.
"Our study highlights the need for continued scientific exploration of remote sub-ice environments in Antarctica because they may have far greater impact on Earth's climate system than we have appreciated in the past," Tulaczyk said.
The Nature study was a collaborative effort between thirteen international scientists and researchers from the following institutions of higher education: the University of Bristol in Britain, Utrecht University in the Netherlands and the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.