The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Something strange is happening with Arctic lakes


with Paulina Firozi


"The lake, about 20 football fields in size, looked as if it was boiling. Its waters hissed, bubbled and popped as a powerful greenhouse gas escaped from the lake bed. Some bubbles grew as big as grapefruits, visibly lifting the water’s surface several inches and carrying up bits of mud from below."

That's the picture I painted in my latest dispatch from the Arctic, where ecologist Katey Walter Anthony discovered Esieh Lake, which is emitting a large amount of methane gas for a single Arctic lake. It's a volume that could pose a significant threat to the climate if lakes like this one turn out to be common.

Most of Esieh is quite shallow, averaging only a little more than three feet deep. But where the gas bubbles cluster, the floor drops suddenly, a plunge marked by the vanishing of all visible plant life.

Measurements showed that the lake dips to about 50 feet deep in one area and nearly 15 feet in another. When they first studied them, Walter Anthony and her graduate student Janelle Sharp named these two seep clusters W1 and W2, short for “Wow 1” and “Wow 2.”

There are already a number of  so-called "thermokarst" lakes growing in the deep muck of the thawing Arctic permafrost that are emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that hits the climate system hard and fast. It's more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term, though without the same long term impact.

These lakes can make for some dramatic scenes, especially in winter:

But for sheer volume, Esieh Lake seems to be emitting more methane gas than those lakes.  (A rough estimate: It's emitting as much gas daily -- two tons of methane -- as about 6,000 dairy cows.)

And Walter Anthony worries there's a feedback loop in which bubbling lakes like Esieh create more warming which in turn could create more lakes that emit methane, significantly increasing the risks of climate warming. “These lakes speed up permafrost thaw,” Walter Anthony told  me. “It’s an acceleration.”

Esieh is so remote it's completely off the grid and took a trip by boat and several days of camping when I visited it. And Walter Anthony's team could only learn so much from the outside -- so they eventually donned their wetsuits and plunged in to the water, which was below 60 degrees.

Here's one intriguing finding about the lake and why it may be emitting so much, relative to its aquatic cousins:

The next discovery came from the lab.

When the scientists examined samples of the gases, they found the chemical signature of a “geologic” origin. In other words, the methane venting from the lake seemed to be emerging not from the direct thawing of frozen Arctic soil, or permafrost, but rather from a reservoir of far older fossil fuels.

If that were happening all over the Arctic, Walter Anthony figured — if fossil fuels that had been buried for millennia were now being exposed to the atmosphere — the planet could be in even deeper peril.

What does that mean? Well, so far, Walter Anthony is working from the hypothesis that at least in this location -- but perhaps others, too -- long-buried fossil fuels are being exposed to the atmosphere, thanks to the thawing of permafrost which had previously sealed them below the ground.

If this turns out to be widespread -- it could only occur in areas where thawing permafrost sits atop older fossil fuel reserves -- then the fear is there could be another source of greenhouse gas emissions that is tied to permafrost thaw, but is actually in addition to it.

You'll recall that the original concern about permafrost is that plant and animal remains in this frozen soil never fully decomposed -- but now that the soil is thawing, so is the carbon-emitting material. 

Scientists know the permafrost contains an enormous amount of carbon — enough to catastrophically warm the planet if it were all released into the atmosphere. But they don’t know how fast it can come out and whether changes will be gradual or rapid.

Now, there's another question: Not only how fast will permafrost thaw, but as that happens, will other older gases also be released in some places? How often will that occur -- and will it be common enough to provide yet another kick to the planet's climate?

Scientists, you can be sure, will be working hard to try to figure this out.


— We haven't seen the last of Florence: Moisture from what was Hurricane Florence is circling back for a second pass, bringing more rain to the still-recovering area in eastern North Carolina, The Post’s Brian McNoldy writes. “Three cyclones have formed in the tropical Atlantic since Friday: Tropical Depression Eleven, Tropical Storm Kirk and Subtropical Storm Leslie,” he writes.

“Closer to home, though, a portion of what was once Hurricane Florence is now between the Bahamas and Bermuda — and could affect North Carolina (again) on Wednesday… Forecast models do not suggest that the storm will be strong even if it does form, but the American and European models agree that it will probably bring unwanted rain to eastern North Carolina on Tuesday and into Wednesday as it brushes the coast and heads north. An inch or less would be insignificant, but anything more could exacerbate the already catastrophic flooding that continues to inundate the Carolinas.”

And in South Carolina: Thousands of residents in South Carolina were urged to prepare to evacuate on Monday as rivers continued to crest. “Roads may be impassable in Horry and Georgetown counties this week, with over 150 roads already closed across the state, South Carolina Emergency Management Division said Monday,” according to ABC News. Some communities are underwater as rivers continue to rise, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports, explaining the floodwaters delayed arrival is a “result of the time it takes the water from swollen rivers within North Carolina’s interior to flow downstream. It’s a considerable distance from the interior of the Carolinas to the shore, and the terrain flattens out along the coastal plain, which delays the drainage of water into the lowlands.”

The South Carolina Emergency Management Division warned residents about the flooding:

Meanwhile: Congress is considering $1.7 billion in new funding for disaster relief and recovery, the Associated Press reports, “even as they face a deadline this week to fund the government before the Oct. 1 start of the new budget year.”

— Man, it’s a hot one: National parks are getting hotter and drier and at a faster pace than other landscapes across the nation, according to a new study, which signals a threat. The research published Monday is the first to assess rainfall and temperatures in all 417 national parks, the Miami Herald reports and found at current greenhouse emission rates, most exposed national parks could see a 16-degree increase by 2100.

“The study found that, between 1885 and the year 2010, areas that are now national parks warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, twice the U.S. rate,” per the report. “It also found that annual precipitation in national parks declined 12 percent, compared to 3 percent drop in the United States overall, during that same period… With that level of increase, arctic permafrost could further melt, trees will replace tundra and wildfires will be more common and damaging. Many rare species would be unable to migrate to more comfortable climes, bringing some to the brink of extinction.”

— Foggy (and rainy) bottom: If you live in the Washington area, you may also be fed up with what has been one of the cloudiest and wettest Septembers the region has ever seen. “September’s 8.25 inches of rain (and counting) has pushed the 2018 precipitation total in Washington to 48.35 inches, which is more than 19 inches above normal. It ranks as the third-greatest amount on record year to date, trailing only 1886 and 1889,” The Post’s Samenow and Ian Livingston report. “If no more rain fell the rest of the year after Sunday, 2018 would still rank as 23rd-wettest on record.”


— California vs. Trump: During a public hearing on the Trump administration’s proposed changes to auto emissions rules, California’s top air regulator urged against the proposal, and called on the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw it.  “There is nothing safe about this proposal,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board at the EPA’s hearing on the proposal in Fresno, Calif., according to the Fresno Bee. She added California “will not sit idly by as you try to flat line our efforts.” 

Monday’s hearing was the first of three events hosted by the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to get public comment on the plan, according to the Associated Press.  Another hearing is scheduled in Dearborn, Mich. Tuesday as well as another in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. "The second hearing was scheduled for Tuesday in Dearborn, Michigan — a city in a region dominated by the auto industry where it could get a better reception," per the AP.

— Grizzly ruling: A federal judge ruled on reinstating grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, The Post's Karin Brulliard reports

The ruling canceled "planned hunts in Wyoming and Idaho and overturning a Trump administration finding that the iconic population had recovered," she writes. In a 48-page ruling, Judge Dana L. Christensen wrote the case was “not about the ethics of hunting, and it is not about solving human- or livestock-grizzly conflicts.” Brulliard adds: "Instead, he said, the ruling was based on his determination that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had illegally failed to consider how removing the Yellowstone bears from the endangered species list would affect other protected grizzly populations, and that its analysis of future threats to the bears was 'arbitrary and capricious.'"

— Georgia nuclear project gets partial green light to continue: The board of the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia voted unanimously to continue the nuclear power expansion of Plant Vogtle, the Atlantic Journal Constitution reports. But its future is not totally certain just yet. “As of Monday afternoon, another major Vogtle owner, Oglethorpe Power, hadn’t yet voted on whether to stay in the project. It was expected to decide later in the day,” per the report. “Georgia Power, another Vogtle co-owner and the largest utility in the state, has said it wants to push forward with the expansion, the only commercial nuclear power project still under construction in the United States.” Utility Dive reported the Energy Department on Friday had sent a letter that “urged owners of the sole nuclear plant under construction in the United States not to cancel the project."

— Lawsuits against shrinking national monuments to stay in D.C.: This week, a judge denied a request from the Trump administration to move lawsuits challenging the president's decision to shrink Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments from the District to Salt Lake City. The environmental and tribal groups that brought the suits regarded keeping the court venue outside of Utah, where the decision is more popular, as a win.


— Oil watch: Global oil prices spiked to $80 a barrel on Monday for the first time in four years, a reaction to a “confluence of world events, including the renewed sanctions against Iran” that will restrain global supply, The Post’s Thomas Heath reports. “The surge on Monday comes after a weekend report from JPMorgan Chase that forecast oil prices could spike to $90 a barrel in upcoming months, especially if the United States does not allow its trading partners to buy Iranian oil,” he adds. “Gas prices, likewise, have risen to their highest levels in four years at about $2.85 for a gallon of regular gas compared with $2.57 a year ago, something that is acutely felt by many voters, according to AAA.”

— Pipeline plans: TransCanada, the developer behind the Keystone XL oil pipeline, will start construction on the pipeline  in 2019 after a State Department report concluded environmental hazards are limited. The 338-page impact report, which was released Friday and criticized by environmental groups, followed a Montana federal judge’s order for further review into the pipeline plans. “The company has already started preparing pipe yards, transporting pipe and mowing parts of the project’s right-of-way in Montana and South Dakota, but TransCanada said in court documents it doesn’t plan start construction in Nebraska in the first half of 2019,” the Associated Press reports. “The report said the $8 billion, 1,184-mile pipeline would have a ‘negligible to moderate’ environmental impact under its normal operations, and continuous monitoring and automatic shut-off valves would help company officials quickly identify a leak or rupture. Additionally, the report said TransCanada has a response plan in place that should mitigate the effects if it’s implemented quickly.”

— Coal is king: Coal is still the top source of global energy generation after producing 38 percent of the world’s electricity last year, a new report from the Institute for Energy Research found. “IER officials said coal’s contribution to the world’s energy supply system is 64 percent greater than natural gas, which ranked second in electricity generation worldwide,” according to Daily Energy Insider.



  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the Energy Department’s efforts in the field of quantum information science.

Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on a series of amendments to the Endangered Species Act on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on cleaning up ocean trash on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing on the impact of tariffs on the U.S. auto industry on Wednesday.
  • The House Science subcommittee on energy holds a hearing on advancing nuclear power on Thursday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on DOE Modernization on Thursday.

—Out of this world: Two tiny robotic explorers on an asteroid more than 100 million miles from Earth took their first "hops" over the weekend, which The Post’s Sarah Kaplan writes are the “the first movements made by any human-made spacecraft across the surface of an asteroid.”