Satellite data helps researchers observe methane release

By: 
Jeff Richardson, UAF University Relations
January 4, 2017

A NASA-sponsored field experiment is providing new insight about the levels of methane escaping from Arctic lakes.

Using satellite imagery, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers have been measuring bubbles beneath the ice of lakes throughout Alaska. By analyzing data from numerous sites, the project aims to estimate the amount of methane being released to the atmosphere through thermokarst lakes.

Franz Meyer, an associate professor at the UAF Geophysical Institute, discussed the project during an AGU press conference. It was highlighted along with several other NASA-sponsored field experiments, including efforts to measure plankton blooms, study coral reefs and determine how a warming ocean is affecting the Greenland ice sheet.

The release of methane from permafrost is being closely watched by climate scientists because it’s a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Varying levels of methane release could significantly affect climate-change scenarios.

Using remote-sensing data, scientists have been able to document growth of many Alaska lakes during the past 60 years. The expanding shorelines of those lakes cover the surrounding permafrost, resulting in permafrost thaw and the release of methane.

Meyer said the project is building upon years of field work conducted by UAF researcher Katey Walter Anthony. Her efforts confirmed that large amounts of methane were escaping from lake-covered permafrost, but only through the integration of remote sensing data could the team start to estimate the scope of the issue.

“I think it’s really exciting,” Meyer said. “Field research can tell you what’s happening at an individual lake, but it doesn’t allow you to say anything about the global-scale methane budget.”

Meyer said a final round of satellite maps will be available for study by the end of 2017.

CONTACT: Franz Meyer, 907-474-7767, fjmeyer@alaska.edu