New technique uses radar to gauge methane release from Arctic lakes

New technique uses radar to gauge methane release from Arctic lakes
Methane ebullition bubbles form in early winter lake ice in Interior Alaska. A yardstick is included for scale. Credit: Melanie Engram

A University of Alaska Fairbanks-led research team has developed a way to use satellite images to determine the amount of methane being released from northern lakes, a technique that could help climate change modelers better account for this potent greenhouse gas.

By using , or SAR, researchers were able to find a correlation between "brighter" satellite images of frozen lakes and the amount of methane they produce. Comparing those SAR images with ground-level methane measurements confirmed that the satellite readings were consistent with on-site data.

SAR data, which were provided by UAF's Alaska Satellite Facility, are well-suited to the Arctic. The technology can penetrate dry snow, and doesn't require daylight or cloud-free conditions. SAR is also good at imaging frozen lakes, particularly ones filled with bubbles that often form in ice when methane is present.

"We found that backscatter is brighter when there are more bubbles trapped in the ice," said Melanie Engram, the lead author of the study and a researcher at UAF's Water and Environmental Research Center. "Bubbles form an insulated blanket, so ice beneath them grows more slowly, causing a warped surface which reflects the radar signal back to the satellite."

The new technique could have significant implications for climate change predictions. Methane is about 30 times more powerful than as a heat-trapping gas, so accurate estimates about its prevalence are particularly important in scientific models.

Previous research had confirmed that vast amounts of methane are being released from thermokarst lakes as the permafrost beneath them thaws. But collecting on-site data from those lakes is often expensive and logistically challenging. Because of that, information about methane production is available from only a tiny percentage of Arctic lakes.

"This new technique is a major breakthrough for understanding the Arctic methane budget," said UAF researcher Katey Walter Anthony, who also contributed to the study. "It helps to resolve a longstanding discrepancy between estimates of Arctic methane emissions from atmospheric measurements and data upscaled from a small number of individual lakes."

To confirm the SAR data, researchers compared with from 48 lakes in five geographic areas in Alaska. By extrapolating those results, researchers can now estimate the methane production of more than 5,000 Alaska lakes.

"It's important to know how much comes out of these lakes and whether the level is increasing," Engram said. "We can't get out to every single lake and do , but we can extrapolate field measurements using SAR remote sensing to get these regional estimates."

The study was published May 11 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

More information: Remote sensing northern lake methane ebullition, Nature Climate Change (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41558-020-0762-8 ,

Journal information: Nature Climate Change

Citation: New technique uses radar to gauge methane release from Arctic lakes (2020, May 11) retrieved 6 December 2023 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Explore further

Less ice, more methane from northern lakes: A result from global warming


Feedback to editors