CHERSKY, Russia — The Russian scientist shuffles across the frozen lake, scuffing aside ankle-deep snow until he finds a cluster of bubbles trapped under the ice. With a cigarette lighter in one hand and a knife in the other, he lances the ice like a blister. Methane whooshes out and bursts into a thin blue flame.
Gas locked inside Siberia's frozen soil and under its lakes has been seeping out since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. But in the past few decades, as the Earth has warmed, the icy ground has begun thawing more rapidly, accelerating the release of methane — a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide — at a perilous rate.
Some scientists believe the thawing of permafrost could become the epicenter of climate change. They say 1.5 trillion tons of carbon, locked inside icebound earth since the age of mammoths, is a climate time bomb waiting to explode if released into the atmosphere.
"Here, total carbon storage is like all the rain forests of our planet put together," says the scientist, Sergey Zimov — "here" being the endless sweep of snow and ice stretching toward Siberia's gray horizon, as seen from Zimov's research facility nearly 350 kilometers (220 miles) above the Arctic Circle.
Climate change moves back to center-stage on Nov. 29 when governments meet in Cancun, Mexico, to try again to thrash out a course of counteractions. But U.N. officials hold out no hope the two weeks of talks will lead to a legally binding accord governing carbon emissions, seen is the key to averting what is feared might be a dramatic change in climate this century.
Most climate scientists, with a few dissenters, say human activities — the stuff of daily life like driving cars, producing electricity or raising cattle — is overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that trap heat, causing a warming effect.
But global warming is amplified in the polar regions. What feels like a modest temperature rise is enough to induce Greenland glaciers to retreat, Arctic sea ice to thin and contract in summer, and permafrost to thaw faster, both on land and under the seabed.
Yet awareness of methane leaks from permafrost is so new that it was not even mentioned in the seminal 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned of rising sea levels inundating coastal cities, dramatic shifts in rainfall disrupting agriculture and drinking water, the spread of diseases and the extinction of species.
"In my view, methane is a serious sleeper out there that can pull us over the hump," said Robert Corell, an eminent U.S. climate change researcher and Arctic specialist. Corell, speaking by telephone from a conference in Miami, said he and other U.S. scientists are pushing Washington to deploy satellites to gather more information on methane leaks.
The lack of data over a long period of time casts uncertainty over the extent of the threat. An article last August in the journal Science quoted several experts as saying it's too early to predict whether Arctic methane will be the tipping point.
"Arctic Armageddon Needs More Science, Less Hype," was its headline.
Studies indicate that cold-country dynamics on climate change are complex. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, a scientific body set up by the eight Arctic rim countries, says overall the Arctic is absorbing more carbon dioxide than it releases.
"Methane is a different story," said its 2009 report. The Arctic is responsible for up to 9 percent of global methane emissions. Other methane sources include landfills, livestock and fossil fuel production.
Katey Walter Anthony, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been measuring methane seeps in Arctic lakes in Alaska, Canada and Russia, starting here around Chersky 10 years ago.
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