A young scientist with curly, reddish hair tucked beneath a knit cap stepped gingerly onto the three-day-old ice of a remote lake in northeastern Siberia. Coating the black depths like cellophane, the thin film held no promise to bear her weight, but a sudden dunk in the frigid water was a risk she had to take. Searching the lake by rickety rowboat all summer had failed, and any day winter’s first big snow would engulf the region, obscuring the lake’s surface until spring. She could not afford to wait that long.
The woman shivered in her worn, blue down jacket and glanced up at the overcast sky. After one more cautious step, she spotted her quarry: a cluster of platter-size bubbles frozen into the ice. Those pockets of gas, which had risen from thawing permafrost—formerly frozen soil—at the lake’s bottom, were the aim of her doctoral research. Long elusive, they suddenly stood out like white stars against a night sky, though less serenely. With a small pick she cracked the icy skin of one of the bubbles and remained unfazed when it hissed back like a punctured gas pipe. Leaning forward, she apprehensively struck a match just above the broken bubble and flames as high as her head burst skyward. The flammable substance was methane, a greenhouse gas that could cause more global warming than carbon dioxide (CO2).