Copenhagen's Most Important Display

Jeffrey Barbee, for the Pulitzer Center
Copenhagen, Denmark

When I was in Copenhagen, I was watching the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) science on a sphere at the US pavilion. I saw a video made by Alaskan researcher Katey Walter from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

It shows methane bubbling out of a lake, and then how they returned there in the winter and lit the methane release on fire. They laugh in the video because they almost blew themselves up, but this is not a laughing matter.

The breakdown of methane hydrates or clathrates, as they are known to science, that are embedded in the arctic tundra and sea floor is something that many climatologists said may happen later this century. Methane is 27 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon. There is a large but unknown amount of methane entrained in the permafrost, but estimates are that there is enough to drastically warm our entire planet. That it is being so widely released right now is nothing short of alarming.

These clathrate crystals "melt" as warming occurs in the arctic circle. Massive methane plumes erupt into the arctic ocean in the summer months, but what is scary is that Katey Walter and her team are finding that they are even melting in the arctic winter. As this methane erupts into our atmosphere much sooner than models have predicted there is an almost apocalyptic fear that "run-away" climate change may occur sooner. Much sooner, with all the sea level rise it implies.

Here is another video from Alaska and yet another from Siberia.

This story was reported for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting as part of the Copenhagen News Collaborative, a cooperative project of several independent news organizations. Check out the feed here from Mother Jones.