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Reducing methane could save Arctic summer sea ice

According to a new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, immediate action to reduce methane emissions could help preserve Arctic summer sea ice. While previous research has predicted that the Arctic summer sea ice may disappear by mid-century if no urgent mitigation actions are taken, scientists now argue that drastic cuts in methane and carbon dioxide emissions could help preserve the ice through 2100 and even beyond.

Preserving Arctic summer sea ice is important not only because it is a vital part of Arctic communities and ecosystems, but also because its melting could rapidly accelerate the speed of global warming. The loss of bright reflective sea ice will expose more dark water surface that, by absorbing sunlight, would create additional warming and additional permafrost thawing.

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and is responsible for over 25 percent of global warming. According to researchers, during the next two decades, the methane that is emitted today may capture over 80 times more heat than an equal amount of carbon dioxide. 

“Reducing current methane emissions represents a huge opportunity to help pump the brakes on global warming,” said study lead author Tianyi Sun, a climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Quickly cutting methane along with CO2 is our best chance at preserving Arctic summer sea ice within our lifetimes and for future generations. We must do both.”

According to Dr. Sun and her colleagues, if we manage to reach net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 and rapidly enact methane reductions using all currently available solutions, the chances of saving Arctic summer sea ice this century could increase from nearly zero to more than 80 percent. 

Preserving this ice is crucial for maintaining intact habitats for walruses, polar bears, and other Arctic wildlife, and for the well-being of indigenous Arctic communities that rely on hunting and fishing for their subsistence. Moreover, it could help deter geopolitical complications which could arise from open access to Arctic waterways.

The largest sources of methane emissions are cattle farming, leaky equipment related to oil and gas production, processing and transportation, and organic matter decomposing in landfills. According to scientists, the most affordable methane reductions could be deployed at the world’s oil and gas facilities. With existing technologies, this industry could reduce over 75 percent of its methane emissions. 

Moreover, advancements in methane detection technologies, such as the development of methane detecting satellites, would make it faster and easier to find and fix this industry’s largest methane leaks.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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