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Russian scientists plan to continue studies of methane emissions in Arctic seas

Presently, scientists do not have sufficient data to forecast how the seeps could change the atmosphere and climate within next 5-10 years
Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research-survey vessel Igor Zarembo/TASS
Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research-survey vessel
© Igor Zarembo/TASS

TASS, December, 9. The scientists, who in 2020 participated in an expedition onboard the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh research-survey vessel, plan to continue studies of methane emissions, which emerge in Russia’s Arctic seas due to the thawing permafrost, said Igor Semiletov of the Ilichev Pacific Oceanological Institute (the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Far Eastern Branch).

The international expedition in 2020 began on September 27 and continued to November 4 in seas of the Eastern Arctic and in the Kara Sea. Russian scientists observed strong emissions of methane (seeps), which keep the gas concentration above the Arctic at rather high levels. The expedition studied seep fields, and came to the conclusion methane emissions would double within the coming year. According to them, the permafrost’s progressing degradation develops unexpectedly quickly.

"We have filed an application with the Ministry of Science and Higher Education regarding next year," the expert told TASS. "We plan to continue the studies on an annual basis. This topic (methane emissions) is a key challenge - consequences from the permafrost’s thawing, which develops due to the global climate changes. We cannot say clearly how much this process influences the climate, but the main ‘candidate’ to explain those massive emissions is the destabilization of hydrates (gas hydrates consisting of water and methane), which are in a giant quantity under the permafrost and inside it - two-fold bigger than in the atmosphere," he said.

Presently, scientists do not have sufficient data to forecast how the seeps could change the atmosphere and climate within next 5-10 years. Experts say gas emissions are much bigger than the seeps they have observed earlier. "We have organized the studies in a limited area. We have put on maps about 2,000 seeps - just what we could see under the vessel’s bottom. You know, how they say - if you see one mouse in a barn, be sure they are hundreds there," he added.

The scientists want to put together the first ever 3D map of massive emissions with the indication of their depths. They will analyze recent samples to see what changes have taken place within one year and why.

Testing new technologies

During the expedition in 2020, scientists tested in the Arctic latitudes a digital holographic camera (DHC), designed by the Tomsk State University. The camera was used to observe plankton and other organisms in natural environment, without sampling water. Thus, results were received on the spot.

"By using this camera, scientists without moving plankton organisms - they remain in the water - have received so to say ‘an optic test’ of about 1 liter of water," the University’s expert Alexei Olshukov told TASS. "The concentration of fragments is measured in real time, and further detailed tests could be done later on in labs. The bio diversity and amounts of plankton prompt fish reserves, and conditions of plankton point to the ecosystem’s state. Consequently, scientists can diagnose early problems."

DNCs during the expedition registered tiny bubbles of 100-300 micrometers from gas hydrate seeps, coming to the surface. "We could register the gas hydrate bubbles in the areas, where they got to the surface," he continued. "Later on, we shall present methods to place the camera next to a seep and to analyze plankton, as well as concentrations and average sizes of the bubbles. We shall be working on this jointly with the Ilichev Pacific Oceanological Institute, the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Far Eastern Branch."

Training young specialists

According to Semiletov, the Russian Arctic is a unique range for scientific studies, and Russia has been leading in scientific publications about the Arctic. Expeditions to the Arctic feature many young Russian scientists. Onboard the Keldysh, worked seven young scientists of the Tomsk Polytechnic University, who studied soils and water.

"The project’s objective is to train young scientists during Arctic expeditions," the University’s representative Alexei Ruban said. "We shall compare (by sampling) sediments and water in the areas of methane emissions against the samples from areas without such emissions. Methane emissions are not a permanent process. This way, we shall learn whether methane has been emitted into the atmosphere in an area or not."

The Tomsk University’s scientists hope to continue studies of water and sediments in the coming year.


2020 expedition


The expedition featured about 70 participants from ten countries. Under the conditions of the current pandemic and respective border restrictions, it was the only international expedition in 2020.