(WASHINGTON POST) Chris Mooney, October 14, 2018 — ABOVE THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, ALASKA Katey Walter Anthony has studied some 300 lakes across the tundras of the Arctic. But sitting on the mucky shore of her latest discovery, the Arctic expert said she’d never seen a lake like this one.
Set against the austere peaks of the Western Brooks Range, the lake, about 20 football fields in size, looked like it was boiling. Its waters hissed, bubbled and popped as a powerful greenhouse gas escaped from the lake bed. Some bubbles grew as big as grapefruits, visibly lifting the water’s surface several inches and carrying up bits of mud from below.
This was methane.
As the permafrost thaws across the fast-warming Arctic, it releases carbon dioxide, the top planet-warming greenhouse gas, from the soil into the air. Sometimes, that thaw spurs the growth of lakes in the soft, sunken ground, and these deep-thawing bodies of water tend to unleash the harder-hitting methane gas.
But not this much of it. This lake, which Walter Anthony dubbed Esieh Lake, looked different. And the volume of gas wafting from it could deliver the climate system another blow if lakes like this turn out to be widespread.
The first time Walter Anthony saw Esieh Lake, she was afraid it might explode — and she is no stranger to the danger, or the theatrics, of methane. In 2010, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks posted a video of the media-savvy ecologist standing on the frozen surface of an Arctic lake, then lighting a methane stream on fire to create a tower of flame as tall as she is. It got nearly half a million views on YouTube.
So now, in the Arctic’s August warmth, she had come back to this isolated spot with a small research team, along with her husband and two young sons, to see what secrets Esieh Lake might yield. Was it simply a bizarre anomaly? Or was it a sign that the thawing Arctic had begun to release an ancient source of methane that could worsen climate change?
One thing she was sure of: If the warming Arctic releases more planet-warming methane, that could lead to. . . more warming. Scientists call this a feedback loop.