Icelandic Glacier Is Producing More Methane Than All European Volcanoes Combined

Posted: Nov 24 2018, 7:54am CST | by , in Latest Science News


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Icelandic Glacier is Producing More Methane Than All European Volcanoes Combined
Dr Peter Wynn from Lancaster University is taking a sample in Iceland. Credit: Dr Hugh Tuffen

New study says Solheimajokull glacier releases up to 41 tons of harmful methane gas every day during the summer months.

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas that is almost 30 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide. It traps large amounts of heat and warms the planet. The gas is produced by both natural processes and human activities. For example, wetlands are among the largest natural sources of methane, while dairy cattle also burp out methane continuously throughout the day. Now, researchers have pinned down another major source of potent methane gas.

A new study shows that up to 41 tons of methane is being released from an Icelandic glacier each day during the summer months. That’s equivalent to the methane produced by more than 136,000 cows.

“This is a huge amount of methane lost from the glacial meltwater stream into the atmosphere,” said Dr. Peter Wynn, a glacial biogeochemist from the Lancaster University. "It greatly exceeds average methane loss from non-glacial rivers to the atmosphere reported in the scientific literature. It rivals some of the world's most methane-producing wetlands; and represents more than twenty times the known methane emissions of all Europe's other volcanoes put together."

The Icelandic glacier, Solheimajokull, flows from the active, ice-covered volcano Katla. According to a previous research, the glacier has shrunk by about 2,050 feet between 2007 and 2015. So, the methane released from this melting glacier could significantly accelerate climate change.

“There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not glaciers can release methane. The beds of glaciers contain the perfect cocktail of conditions for methane production – microbes, low oxygen, organic matter and water – along with an impermeable cap of ice on the surface trapping the methane beneath,” said Dr. Wynn. “However, nobody has thoroughly investigated this in the field before and this is the strongest evidence yet that glaciers are releasing methane.”

For the study, researchers took water samples from the edge of the melt water lake in front of the Sólheimajökull glacier and measured the methane concentrations. Then, they compared them with methane levels in nearby sediments and other rivers. Using a mass spectrometer, researchers discovered that the methane is coming from microbiological activity at the bed of the glacier. However, the heat from Katla volcano is also contributing to this process.

"We believe that while the volcano is not producing the methane, it is providing the conditions that allow the microbes to thrive and release methane into the surrounding meltwaters.” Dr. Wynn said.

Dr. Hugh Tuffen, a volcanologist at Lancaster University and co-author on the study says "The heat from Katla volcano may greatly accelerate the generation of microbial methane, so in fact you could see Katla as a giant microbial incubator.

"Scientists have also recently discovered that Katla emits vast amounts of CO2 - it's in the top five globally in terms of CO2 emissions from volcanoes -so Katla is certainly a very interesting, very gassy volcano."

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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