By Guest Author 21/12/2017

Tiny air bubbles trapped in ice more than 10,000 years were able to tell scientists a story of what the world used to like and how humans have changed it.

Atmospheric scientist Dr Hinrich Schaefer was part of team that in August reported on a significant discovery about the emission of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, that may alter how countries tackle reducing global warming.

The research challenges conventional thinking about the amount of methane seeping out naturally from oil and gas fields. The team found evidence that this is a fraction of what had previously been thought, meaning methane emissions from industrial fossil fuel use and extraction were far greater than realised.

Dr Schaefer said results showed the amount of methane escaping naturally from gas fields was three to four times less than previously estimated. Further, when the climate warmed in the past, methane was not released from ancient carbon reservoirs like permafrost or undersea gas hydrates, so would not be a factor in future climate change.

Dr Schaefer says the research has two main implications:

  • If we know that the emissions are caused by industry or human activity, it means we have a chance to reduce them
  • Huge natural stores of methane did not react to the end of the ice age and the team was hopeful that these reservoirs are less prone to warming.

Image: Scientists with an ice core recovered from the Taylor Glacier at Antarctica would go on to discover important findings about climate change. [Photo: Hinrich Schaefer, NIWA].

This article was originally published on NIWA, as part of their Summer Series 2017