An expansion of wetlands and not a large-scale melting of frozen methane deposits is the likely cause of a spike in atmospheric methane gas that took place some 11,600 years ago, according to an international research team led by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
The finding is expected to come as a relief to scientists and climate watchers concerned that huge accelerations of global warming might have been touched off by methane melts in the past and could happen again now as the planet warms. By measuring the amount of carbon-14 isotopes in methane from air bubbles trapped in glacial ice, the researchers determined that the surge that took place nearly 12,000 years ago was more chemically consistent with an expansion of wetlands. Wetland regions, which produce large amounts of methane from bacterial breakdown of organic matter, are known to have spread during warming trends throughout history.
"This is good news for global warming because it suggests that methane clathrates do not respond to warming by releasing large amounts of methane into the atmosphere," said Vasilii Petrenko, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Colorado, Boulder, who led the analysis while a graduate student at Scripps.
The results appear in April 24 editions of the journal Science.
Scientists had long been concerned about the potential for present-day climate change to cause a thawing of Arctic permafrost and a warming of ocean waters great enough to trigger a huge release of methane that would send planetary warming into overdrive. Vast amounts of methane are sequestered in solid form, known as methane clathrate, in seafloor deposits and in permafrost. Cold temperatures and the intense pressure of the deep ocean stabilize the methane clathrate masses and keep methane from entering the atmosphere.
Scientists have estimated that a melting of only 10 percent of the world's clathrate deposits would create a gree
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