New Nunataryuk paper on modelling subsea methane emissions on East Siberian Arctic Shelf

 bg 17 3247 2020 f05 web

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) hosts large yet poorly quantified reservoirs of subsea permafrost and associated gas hydrates. It has been suggested that the global-warming induced thawing and dissociation of these reservoirs is currently releasing methane (CH4) to the shallow coastal ocean and ultimately the atmosphere.

However, a major unknown in assessing the contribution of this CH4 flux to the global CH4 cycle and its climate feedbacks is the fate of CH4 as it migrates towards the sediment–water interface. In marine sediments, (an)aerobic oxidation reactions generally act as a very efficient methane sink. However, a number of environmental conditions can reduce the efficiency of this biofilter. In this study, the Nunataryuk WP8 partners used a reaction-transport model to assess the efficiency of the benthic methane filter and, thus, the potential for benthic methane escape across a wide range of environmental conditions that could be encountered on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Results show that, under steady-state conditions, anaerobic oxidation of methane (AOM) acts as an efficient biofilter. However, high CH4 escape is simulated for rapidly accumulating and/or active sediments and can be further enhanced by the presence of organic matter with intermediate reactivity and/or intense local transport processes, such as bioirrigation. In addition, in active settings, the sudden onset of CH4 flux triggered by, for instance, permafrost thaw or hydrate destabilization can also drive a high non-turbulent methane escape of up to 19 µmol CH4 cm−2 yr−1 during a transient, multi-decadal period. This “window of opportunity” arises due to delayed response of the resident microbial community to suddenly changing CH4 fluxes. A first-order estimate of non-turbulent, benthic methane efflux from the Laptev Sea is derived as well. We find that, under present-day conditions, non-turbulent methane efflux from Laptev Sea sediments does not exceed 1 Gg CH4 yr−1.

As a consequence, we conclude that previously published estimates of ocean–atmosphere CH4 fluxes from the ESAS cannot be supported by non-turbulent, benthic methane escape.