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Bubbles of warming, beneath the ice

As permafrost thaws in the Arctic, huge pockets of methane -- a potent greenhouse gas -- could be released into the atmosphere. Experts are only beginning to understand how disastrous that could be.

February 22, 2009|Margot Roosevelt

To many Alaskans, it is hardly news that permafrost is thawing: Across the state, houses have been collapsing and trees tipping over. Researchers estimate that repairing affected schools, roads and bridges will cost up to $6 billion over the next two decades.

But the global implications have yet to sink in.

Out on the wild frontier of climate research, far from the legislatures and the diplomatic gatherings where climate policy is debated, Katey Walter and her colleagues focus on what they call "ground truthing."

And beyond that laborious data-gathering, Walter has a mission: to spread the word about what is happening. At the beginning of her field trip, she stops in Nome and leads a group of fifth-graders, many from Alaska Native tribes, out to poke holes in the ice of a nearby lake and light methane flares.

She talks to them about people who live in faraway cities, driving automobiles and working in industries that emit carbon dioxide. And how that causes warming that is felt in the Arctic. And why, even though there are so few people in Alaska, the ice around them is melting.

"That's what we're studying," she explains. "It's all related."

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margot.roosevelt@ latimes.com

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latimes.com/warming

See video of Walter's research team as they drill through permafrost and ignite a

methane bubble.

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