Alabama, Alaska, and the Mystery of Arctic Methane

By Hannah Lyons, ‎Public Affairs Specialist at the Department of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs and graduate of Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.

Bubble of methane frozen in an Arctic lake. (Photo credit: istock.com)

Most people growing up in south Alabama never see real snow. In my hometown of Dothan, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, winter temperatures usually hover around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, rarely dropping below freezing. When that happens, it’s a big deal. My first memory of seeing snow was around age eight when my father woke me up in the middle of the night to run outside to watch snowflakes melt on the grass. Frozen water was falling from the sky in a place where you can wear shorts on Christmas Day! I was amazed! I knew there were places like Alaska where snow covered the ground all winter, but it was something I had only seen on TV in nature documentaries. In my mind, like for many other Americans, Alaska was a perpetually frozen land ruled by polar bears and a few rugged individuals who lived in igloos and rode around on dog sleds.

Figure A: The mean annual temperature and five year average for Barrow, Alaska. (Image credit: The Alaska Climate Research Center — A Recognized State Climate Office — American Association of State Climatologists.)

Today, thanks to my career as a public affairs specialist focusing on environmental issues, I’ve learned so much more about Alaska, which is central to climate change discussions. Like the rest of the globe, Alaska is warming, but at a much higher rate than the rest of the country. As Figure (A) points out, the mean annual air temperature in Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska — which is located far above the Arctic Circle and holds the honor of being the country’s northernmost city — has been steadily rising for more than a half century. This is having disastrous consequences for those who live in Alaska: melting ice makes traveling across the ice by dog sled or snow machine to hunt or visit family unpredictable and dangerous (people are falling into the water along routes that were once frozen all winter); permafrost (soil frozen year after year) is thawing beneath buildings and affecting their very infrastructure; and without sea ice to protect coastal villages, sea waves are eating away their beaches, pulling them into the sea.

Recession at Portage Glacier over the years.

In August 2015, I traveled to Alaska for the Secretary of State’s Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic (GLACIER), which brought together world leaders, including President Obama, to seek ways to address challenges in the rapidly changing Arctic region. During my time there, I visited Portage Glacier near the city of Anchorage. Ice in most of Alaska’s glaciers is melting faster than it accumulates and I was keen to see a glacier in person. This is unfortunate not just because our children may never know the magnificence of these natural gems, but because of melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels.

Portage Glacier, Alaska (Photo credit: Hannah Lyons)

I learned that only twenty years ago visitors could see the glacier’s beautiful walls of deep blue ice from the shore near the visitors’ center. However, since then, the glacier has retreated up and around a mountain, which meant that we had to take 25 minute boat ride across a glacial lake to see it.

I would feel (sadness) if my kids could never see a glacier the way that I did when I went up to Alaska. I want them to see the same things that I saw when I was growing up.
— President Barack Obama to actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2016 film, “Before the Flood”

Looking at the impacts of climate change in Alaska, I thought about the impacts of climate change back home in Alabama. Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed at more than twice the rate of the rest of the United States. Faster warming at the poles impacts the rest of the planet, including my home state. Higher temperatures are accelerating glacial melt and raising sea-levels in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. Longer, hotter summers contribute to the ideal conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread outside Birmingham. A warmer ocean provides the fuel for stronger, more destructive hurricanes to come ashore in Mobile. Much of this is outlined in details in the White House Fact Sheet, What Climate Change Means for Alabama and the Southeast and Caribbean, released in May 2014.

Erosion is one impact of climate change affecting both Alabama and Alaska. (L): Flooding of a small stream in June 2014 destroyed this roadbed in Foley, Alabama. (Credit: Patsy Lynch, FEMA); (R) A cabin along Alaska’s Arctic coast was washed into the ocean because the bluff it was sitting on eroded away. (Photo credit: Benjamin Jones, USGS , 2009)

The effects of climate change on the Arctic have a significant impact on Alaska, Alabama, and the rest of the world and one of the drivers of Arctic warming is methane gas.

Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in our atmosphere, causing global temperatures to increase. Methane is especially important to pay attention to because according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.” Methane is released into our atmosphere from man-made sources, such as landfills and fossil fuel production, but also from natural sources like volcanoes and wetlands. Atmospheric methane levels have shot up in the past half century compared to levels over the entire past 400,000 years. But there are a lot of questions surrounding how much methane is being released from a warming Arctic.

Scientists in both Alaska and Alabama are working to find answers. In Alaska, Assistant Professor Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ (UAF) Water and Environmental Research Center (WERC) — an organization jointly supported by UAF’s International Arctic Research Center and Institute of Northern Engineering — is measuring sources of methane coming from Arctic lakes.

Bubbling methane melted a hole in the ice of an otherwise frozen lake in the Brooks Range, Alaska, in April 2011. (Photo credit: Katey Walter Anthony via the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

A video in which she and a colleague set fire to the methane produced in an Arctic lake went viral in 2010:

Hunting for methane with Katey Walter Anthony. (Video from YouTube)

Why do scientists choose the Arctic to research methane gas? As it’s a clear, odorless gas, tracking methane can be difficult. However, it is a bit easier to track methane in cold areas like Alaska because you can record information about the frozen bubbles of methane found in lakes, whereas in warm areas like Alabama methane simply escapes unmeasured.

Setting ice on fire: don’t try this at home! Research Associate Professor Katey Walter Anthony inspects flaming methane gas seeping from a hole in the ice on the surface of a pond on the UAF campus. The naturally occurring phenomenon is made worse by thawing permafrost and increased plant decay caused by global warming. (Photo credit: Todd Paris, University of Alaska, Fairbanks)

4000 miles away, University of Alabama researchers are investigating Arctic methane-related phenomena. In 2015, Dr. Natasha Dimova, a University of Alabama Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences, together with a team of researchers led by Dr. Adina Paytan of University of California, Santa Cruz, discovered that methanebubbling from Arctic lakes into the atmosphere could be traced to groundwater from thawing permafrost.

Dr. Natasha Dimova of the University of Alabama (Image credit: YouTube)

“Accurate climate change predictions for the Arctic partially depend, as our paper points out, on gaining a better understanding of methane sources in this region,” said Dr. Dimova. “This research is another step in expanding our understanding of the role of groundwater in the big picture of global greenhouse budgets.”

This particular study concluded something that was previously unrecognized: that groundwater from seasonally thawing permafrost could be yet another source of methane in Arctic lakes, revealing once again how much there is to learn about methane sources in the Arctic.

Despite their vast differences, there is much more linking Alabama and Alaska — America’s Arctic state — than just their place at the beginning of the alphabet. And thanks to the work of scientists like those from the University of Alabama and the University of Alaska, we are beginning to understand more about climate change, methane, and how the gases in our atmosphere are essential to the health of our planet for future generations.

About the Author:

Hannah Lyons is Public Affairs Specialist at the Department of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs. A graduate of Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, Hannah works on environmental issues including climate change, ocean issues, wildlife trafficking, and Arctic issues. Hannah traveled to Alaska in 2015 for the Department of State’s Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER). You can reach her at LyonsHJ2@state.gov.

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