White microbial mats (Image Courtesy : Andrew Thurber/Oregon State University)

Scientists have revealed the active leak of sea bed methane in Antarctica for the first time in the history, and they speculating that the phenomenon might lead to accelerate the process of global warming.

Andrew R. Thurber, Sarah Seabrook, and Rory M. Welsh from the Oregon State University, Corvallis, reported their findings in ‘The Royal Society Publishing’ journal, entitling their paper ‘Riddles in the cold : Antarctic endemism and microbial succession impact methane cycling in the Southern Ocean’, which was published on July 22, 2020.


Methane (CH₄) is one of the most active greenhouse gases alongside the water vapor, that takes more effective role in the process of climate change, even more than that of the carbon dioxide (CO₂).

Though scientists have long been concerned and presumed about the risk of active leak of sea bed methane from under the ice sheet of Antarctica. They found that some ‘methane consuming bacteria’ or micro-organisms, suggests a “methane bio-filter” digest the micro-organisms and this way the bacteria obtains energy. Thus it prevents the methane from entering into the sub-glacial water, from where it can ultimately drain into ocean water and can be released into the atmosphere.

In this image, the white microbial mats are telltale signs of the spots where methane may be released from underground methane deposits (Image Courtesy : Andrew Thurber/Oregon State University)

Researchers also discovered that the first active leaking sea bed methane was occurred in 2011, but the methane consuming microbes arrived almost five years later to allow the gas to escape. Scientists predict that it could take up to 5 to 10 years for this bacterial community to become fully adapted and to start digest leaking methane from sea bed.

Methane having the potential to climate risk

Approximately a quarter of  Earth's sea bed methane is esteemed to be reserved beneath the sea bed around Antarctica. Thenceforth if it begins to leak out, according to the scientists, it could be an "incredibly concerning" for global climate.

This active leaking of methane from underneath the permafrost area of Antarctica, as the scientists consider, is the key tipping point and can act as one of the most effective cause of growing global warming.


The mystery of the study

However, no active leak of sea bed methane had been recorded until the newly conducted study. Though the researchers mentioned that the active leak of methane from the Ross Sea of Antarctica did not appear to have been set free that yields global warming. This study is about to understand further about the leaking of sea bed methane in Antarctica, as well as having a better understanding about the functioning of the micro-organisms, which was not known so well before.

Researchers said that,
Our results indicate that the precision of future global climate models may be developed by considering the time it will take for the bacterial communities to respond to novel methane input.

Besides these, the most mysterious fact, the answer to which scientists are still searching for, is that, the site stands aside an active volcano. But to the researchers, the sea bed methane is not likely to be leaked from that.

It is reported that the revelation of methane seeps at nearly 9.1 metres (or 30 feet) deep into the ocean, known as Cinder Cones in McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. It is a nearly 70 metres (or 230 feet) long patch of white-colored microbial mats. They did not find any bubble of methane, rather it appeared and dissolved in the ocean water through a process called "diffuse flow".

The thousands of years old "decaying algae deposits" underneath the ocean sediments is thought to be the source of this sea bed methane. The oceanic methane-eating bacteria community consumes methane that is originated from sea bed in the most portion of the world. But the sluggish growth of this microbial community around Antarctic side leads to a global concern, that means this greenhouse gas is almost certain to be exposed into the Earth's atmosphere.

However, this active leak of sea bed methane is, no doubt, a matter greatest of concern, as well as the least know phenomenon; but this new seep might act as a "natural laboratory" for further research on it.

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