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Researchers in the Arctic Ocean map undersea methane pockets in a 250-million-year-old 'fault zone'

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Researchers in the Arctic Ocean map undersea methane pockets distributed across a 250-million-year-old ‘fault zone’ that could accelerate ice sheet withdrawal with future ruptures

  • Researchers mapped a network of undersea methane pockets in the Arctic
  • They found structural instability in the seafloor was the biggest factor effecting which region would experience a rupture, releasing the trapped methane
  • The release of methane from beneath the seafloor had been linked to the withdrawal of ice sheets in the region

Researchers in the Arctic Ocean have discovered a massive network of undersea faults that have been slowly leaking methane, which may be contributing to the withdrawal of ice sheets in the region.

A team from the Arctic University of Norway, led by Malin Waage, discovered a huge number of active ‘mounds’ of undersea methane in the Barents Sea, some as wide as 1,600 feet.

Past research had shown methane was leaking into the waters in the region, which some had linked to the rate at which local ice sheets were withdrawing.

Researchers from the Arctic University of Norway traveled to the Barents Sea to map a network of undersea faults and methane'mounds' believed to be linked to the rate of ice sheet withdrawal in the region

Researchers from the Arctic University of Norway traveled to the Barents Sea to map a network of undersea faults and methane ‘mounds’ believed to be linked to the rate of ice sheet withdrawal in the region

The team had initially thought that methane leaks themselves might have been caused by some environmental instability driven by the effects of climate change, which was hastening the depletion of ice sheets, according to a Newsweek report.

After analyzing 3D seismic data for the region, in the Barents Sea, between the northwestern coast of Russia and Svalbard, the team discovered something more complicated.

The region was covered with craters caused by giant pockets of methane exploding through the surface of the seafloor, some as wide as 3,000 feet.

The team had thought many of these ruptures occurred at the end of the last ice age, between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago, and were driven by the effects of a dramatically changing environment.

However, the seismic data showed that many of the craters were much older, having formed 20,000 years ago or more, and many had been triggered not by structural weaknesses in the seafloor rather than shifts in the environment.

Previous research had found a wide range of craters located where previous methane ruptures took place, which researchers had previously assumed were caused by climate instability during the end of the last ice age

Previous research had found a wide range of craters located where previous methane ruptures took place, which researchers had previously assumed were caused by climate instability during the end of the last ice age

The new analysis, based on 3D seismic data, suggests that structural instability in the seafloor is a much more likely explanation for the crater formations, and could help predict which large'mounds' of undersea methane by rupture next

The new analysis, based on 3D seismic data, suggests that structural instability in the seafloor is a much more likely explanation for the crater formations, and could help predict which large ‘mounds’ of undersea methane by rupture next

After analyzing 20% of the region, the team found that the mounds of methane still present beneath the surface might similarly be more influenced by the structural dynamics of the seafloor than the short-term shifts in climate change.

While Waage admits there is ‘still very much that we don’t know about this system,’ the findings could help researchers create more accurate models for ice sheet withdrawals based on which pockets of methane are most susceptible to rupture.

It could also be used to help guide efforts to minimize the effects of climate change by storing surplus carbon dioxide under the seabed, by helping researchers select the most structurally stable positions.

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