Antarctica may be storing vast quantities of methane underneath its ice-sheet, according to a new paper published in Nature, prompting fears of runaway climate change if they were ever released.
Methane is regularly left out of the discourse on climate change yet it is far more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Methane molecules absorb 20-30 times more of the sun’s energy than carbon dioxide molecules thus have the potential to contribute far more to the greenhouse effect and higher global temperatures.
The fear is that if rising temperatures melt ice caps and release methane then global warming will be accelerated leading to so-called runaway climate change.
The Nature paper says Antarctica was previously thought to be devoid of life but is now known to be a "reservoir of metabolically active microbial cells and organic carbon". Scientists evaluating life beneath Antarctica’s ice-sheet now believe large amounts of methane could have accumulated.
"We calculate that the sub-Antarctic hydrate inventory could be of the same order of magnitude as that of recent estimates made for Arctic permafrost. Our findings suggest that the Antarctic Ice Sheet may be a neglected but important component of the global methane budget, with the potential to act as a positive feedback on climate warming during ice-sheet wastage," concludes the paper.