The Arctic’s Permafrost-Obsessed Methane Detectives

at the midnight Sun Golf Course in Fairbanks, Alaska, they say you never get the same shot twice. That’s because the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, and as the underground permafrost thaws, it deforms the course’s fairways. This express defrost unlocks ancient organic matter—a lot of it. (The world’s permafrost holds twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere.) Microbes feed on that liberated matter and fart out plumes of methane, a gas that’s 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. And as thawing permafrost releases more methane, it raises global temperatures—which thaws more permafrost, which releases more methane. It’s the dreaded climate feedback loop, and scientists are using an array of tech to better understand it.

“We know the future of the Arctic is all about warming,” says Tyler R. Jones, a geochemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “To be prepared, we want to understand permafrost environments better—to model them better. We want to know what’s possible.”

Fairways happen to be perfect locations for the scientists to land their specially designed drone. The aircraft, which carries instruments for sampling greenhouse gases, has a wingspan of 10 feet. But it lacks wheels, so the team has to belly-land it. “You can just make laps around a feature of interest and get a profile of a methane plume,” Jones says. “The golfers let us play through for a minute and land our drone. And then they hit their shots.”

Nearby lurks a site of particular interest—or dread, depending on how you look at it. Big Trail Lake is the product of a violent thermokarst event, in which permafrost thaws so rapidly that the ground collapses. The resulting craters, filled with water, represent ideal conditions for microbes to produce methane. Indeed, Big Trail Lake may be one of the highest-emitting lakes in Alaska, so the team collects methane data from a floating instrument tower there. “This is probably one of the most sophisticated science experiments happening in the Arctic, because of the different types of instruments,” says Nicholas Hasson, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “We’re kind of like methane detectives.”

Unlike an array of sensors stuck in one place on the ground, a drone can take samples at varying altitudes and across whole landscapes, providing researchers with a highly detailed map of aerial methane concentrations.

Photograph: Frankie Carino

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