"The drillers heard a bubbling sound coming from the well, so we decided to have a look..."
Fossil fuel companies drilling into the Norwegian permafrost may be unleashing a hidden monster.
After analyzing 18 hydrocarbon exploration wells in Svalbard, an archipelago located between Norway and the North Pole, researchers discovered that half of them had struck accumulations of previously trapped methane gas.
Allowing much of this gas to escape into the atmosphere could send carbon emissions skyrocketing, the scientists are now warning, further accelerating the melting of permafrost, which would in turn release more methane in a terrifying vicious cycle.
"Methane is a potent greenhouse gas," explained Thomas Birchall of the University Center in Svalbard, lead author of a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science, in a statement. "At present, the leakage from below permafrost is very low, but factors such as glacial retreat and permafrost thawing may 'lift the lid' on this in the future."
The Great Escape
It's not just drilling operations that could be releasing this gas. Some geographical features of the permafrost in Svalbard could allow gas to escape as well.
Studying how the methane moves below this thick slab of ice, however, can prove difficult.
Wells being bored by fossil fuel-prospecting companies are now allowing scientists to get a better sense of how this gas behaves and where it accumulates.
Some of the wells Birchall and his colleagues examined showed big deposits of methane gas trapped at the base of the permafrost. Other wells had no gas present, suggesting it had already migrated elsewhere.
"One anecdotal example is from a wellbore that was drilled recently near the airport in Longyearbyen," Birchal recalled in the statement. "The drillers heard a bubbling sound coming from the well, so we decided to have a look, armed with rudimentary alarms designed for detecting explosive levels of methane — which were immediately triggered when we held them over the wellbore."
While these methane deposits sound like a ticking time bomb, scientists still have work to do until they fully understand how the gas moves below the ice.
But if there's one certainty, it's that global warming could soon give the gas even more opportunities to get free — risking the escape of a dangerous environmental monster.
More on permafrost: Melting Glaciers Are Releasing Methane Into the Atmosphere
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