For instance, the forty-one scientists writing in Nature emphasized that, “despite the massive amount of carbon in permafrost soils, emissions from these soils are unlikely to overshadow those from the burning of fossil fuels, which will continue to be the main source of climate forcing.”

Comments like that should make people think twice about proposals to geo-engineer a cooling effect in the Arctic, such as one recently presented at the American Geophysical Union and described in an article at New Scientist.

How problematic methane (and carbon dioxide) from Arctic permafrost will be remains a mystery. A useful 2010 overview in the journal Science, titled “How Stable Is the Methane Cycle?”, emphasized the importance of resolving lingering uncertainties. Thankfully, researchers are on the case, according to a December 19 article in Nature, which highlighted the fact “permafrost science is heating up in the United States.”

As scientists continue to work out the complex physical and chemical processes playing out in the Arctic, it will be incumbent upon journalists to convey important nuances about both terrestrial and oceanic methane, and how both fit into the larger picture of Earth’s changing climate.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.