Svalbard: no bubbles or bears detected

Svalbard airport. No bears (armoured or otherwise) in sight.

The only things that anyone* ever wants to know about Svalbard are: did you see armoured bears, and did you see any methane bubbling up form the clathrates? Well, I’m sad to report that on first look, we detected neither.

*OK, so maybe not anyone. Maybe just me. Most people probably have no idea what I’m on about. So for the 99%, I’ll explain. Armoured bears are in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (highly recommended reading, IMHO). I won’t expand on that point. What I will expand upon is the bubbles, as we flew to Svalbard yesterday to see if we could find any evidence of them.

The bubbles of methane are released from structures on the bottom of the ocean, which are called methane clathrates, gas hydrates, or some variation thereof. I think these are very curious entities, probably because I don’t know enough about them. For now, I’ll just say that the gas hydrates are crystalline structures of water and methane ice, and methane is trapped within the structures. Sometimes, the methane can escape the structure, and bubble out into the ocean. There is a line of these gas hydrates just off the west coast of Svalbard, and methane has been observed bubbling up from the structures underwater. The methane dissolves in the water while it rises to the surface, but the question is whether all of it dissolves, or if some gas can escape to the air.

It was this source of methane that we went looking for off the coast of Svalbard. We didn’t observe higher concentrations of methane in the air while we were there, however it’s still possible we could detect some signature when we get the final analysis done in the lab (and by we, I mean colleagues at Royal Holloway, Manchester, FAAM, etc, and not me!).

Even if we don’t see any emissions from the gas hydrates, it doesn’t mean that it never reaches the atmosphere. The gas hydrates only trap the methane effectively at certain temperatures and pressures. If the water warms, the gas hydrates could potentially release considerable amounts of methane. If the sea is warming gradually, we may reach a point where lots of methane starts to be released. So it’s possible that under most conditions, no methane escapes. But then once the temperature crosses some threshold, it could then start to be released. What we want to know is whether any of this can get into the atmosphere, where it would cause more localised warming.

So that’s why we went off to Svalbard in summer. We also looked for, and found, regions of the atmosphere with more methane than the general background. This is one thing that I’m really interested in. I want to use a model to work out where these high concentrations of methane come from, and see if that’s consistent with the sources suggested by the isotopic analysis. Judging by the meteorology, I think the sources will be Russian (gas) or Scandinavian (wetlands). Watch this space (for a very long time) to find out if I’m right!

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