An Estonian yacht set sail for the Arctic this week to gather water samples that could help check a theory about the reasons for climate change, organisers said.
"In the Arctic, the climate is warming about twice as fast as anywhere else in the world. Scientists haven't really reached a consensus as to why that is: how much of it is due to human activity and how much can be attributed to natural causes," expedition organiser Tiit Pruuli told AFP.
"One theory is that huge amounts of the greenhouse gas methane escape from the seafloor. One of our tasks will be to take water samples... and when we return, scientists will measure the amount of methane," the journalist and businessman said.
The 24-metre (78-foot) ship, called Admiral Bellingshausen, has a crew of sailors, scientists and journalists who will spend four months at sea.
The yacht took off from the town of Sillamae on Estonia's northern coast on Tuesday. The crew hopes to sail to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, the Norwegian volcanic island Jan Mayen, the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard and then as far north as the ice allows.
The crew may also change course and extend their journey -- perhaps all the way through the Northeast and Northwest Passage -- if certain coronavirus restrictions, including ones imposed by Canada, are lifted.
The pandemic restrictions also leave a question mark over whether Estonia's President Kersti Kaljulaid will be able to join the expedition at Svalbard as planned.
Research purposes aside, Pruuli also hopes that the civic initiative will help Estonia receive observer state status on the Arctic Council, which gathers countries bordering the region.
According to another AFP report, since the 1970s, climate change has pushed up temperatures in the Arctic three times as fast as the world average. In 2019, the region, which is also home to a variety of animal species, saw its second hottest year since 1900 and the second smallest ice floe ever registered.
The ice shrank even more in 2020, the report explains. Global warming, which reduces the part of the Arctic Ocean that is permanently covered by ice, puts at risk species such as polar bears, bowhead whales, seals and sea birds.
While the melting of the Arctic ice pack in the ocean has no impact on sea levels, the melting of the huge Greenland ice sheet is a cause for concern. Were it to completely disappear it would lead to a seven-metre (2.1 feet) rise in sea levels, the report adds.
Other alarming phenomena include the emergence of major forest fires in remote areas and the melting of the permafrost, which houses large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than CO2.
The report explains how the Arctic is estimated to hold around 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas reserves. The melting of the Arctic ice cover has made the region more accessible to shipping as well as oil and gas extraction, making it increasingly coveted by neighbouring and distant countries, including China, the AFP report adds.
(With inputs from AFP)