Back in 2016, Siberia’s amusingly named Bely Island made headlines around the world after sections of its grassy landscape became somewhat bouncy.
As it turned out, the island was leaking greenhouse gases at a remarkable rate. In fact, the air escaping from the ground there contained 100 times more methane and 25 times more carbon dioxide – the two most potent greenhouse gases by far – than the surrounding atmosphere.
In sum, this, ladies and gentlemen, is not good.
Thanks to the omnipresence of bacterial life within its soil, there’s a heck of a lot of methane locked up within Siberia’s permafrost. Permafrost, as the name implies, is meant to be somewhat permanent – it’s a mixture of ice and soil that remains frosted over for at least two years or more. However, thanks to the rapid pace of climate change, the region is warming incredibly fast – sometimes twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
Bouncy Bely Island. Siberian Times via YouTube
When permafrost melts, it unleashes the trapped methane and carbon dioxide within it. Although carbon dioxide lasts longer in the atmosphere than methane, the latter gas is actually around 28-36 times more potent at trapping heat.
As the permafrost mainly stores methane, its continued rapid release – as documented quite extravagantly by these underground bubbles – may be able to warm the planet rapidly, if there’s enough of it there.
A suddenly warmer planet means not only melting ice caps and expanding seas, but less stable stores of permafrost worldwide. This means that the world is potentially slipping into a self-reinforcing cycle of heating and methane release, and it’s not clear where the point of no return may be.
The Russian tundra isn’t the only place where methane is stored in this way. In fact, there’s probably a lot more hiding deep beneath the oceans. Earlier this month, scientists announced that they found a record-breaking pool of it within the seabed of the Pacific Ocean, stretching all the way from Guatemala to Hawaii.
As the surface world warms, the oceans take on more carbon dioxide. This makes them more acidic, which can erode away at the sedimentary cap on these submarine methane reserves, which allows them to degas and escape into the atmosphere. Once again, the world will tip towards that dangerous self-reinforcing cycle.
Although peer-reviewed data is as yet forthcoming, these bouncy patches of grass in Siberia look to be a genuinely worrying sign of things to come.