NASA Is Studying Alaska's Creepy Bubbling Lakes from Space

Satellites monitor the melting Alaskan permafrost in NASA’s ABoVE project.

Aug 28 2016, 7:00pm

Image: NASA Goddard/YouTube.

Every single month of 2016 has been the hottest on record, and this uptick in temperature is sure to have wide-ranging consequences around the world. One of the weirdest and least understood of these climate-related side effects is that Arctic boreal lakes are boiling over with methane bubbles. Indeed, some of these areas are such rich producers of methane that scientists can light plumes of the lake's escaped gas on fire.

Image: NASA Goddard/YouTube

These gassy lakes are created by thawing permafrost, which is soil that normally remains frozen all year. But warmer temperatures have caused more permafrost to melt, causing the ground around it to collapse into water-filled sinkholes called thermokarst lakes.

Carbon that has been stored in the permafrost for millennia is released in this process, and is then metabolized by the microbial community in the lake beds. The byproduct is methane, which bubbles to the surface. As lakes freeze again in the winter, these methane bubbles accumulate underneath the surface ice like a pressure cooker.

Scientists have been studying this phenomenon on the ground for years, but now NASA is pioneering some space-down views with the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE). The idea is to scale up the measurements made by ground crews with closer satellite observations of Alaska's changing permafrost landscape.

"We're trying to establish the amount of methane that's released from these lakes," said Prajna Lindgren, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, in a NASA project blog post.

Researchers like Lindgren aren't measuring these gas levels just for kicks. Methane is a powerful and influential greenhouse gas, and thawing permafrost might release a lot of it into the atmosphere over the coming decades. It's not only an Alaskan problem; Motherboard's Sarah Emerson also recently reported on weird methane bubbles that are forming underground in Siberia.

Image: YouTube/Siberian Times

Early estimates suggest that greenhouse gases released by thawing permafrost could turn the heat up almost an entire degree Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century, and may even cause a feedback loop of Arctic warming. So, in addition to having fun stomping on these bubbles or lighting them on fire, it's good news that scientists are spearheading new initiatives to study their full effect on the rapidly warming Anthropocene climate.