The Risky Business of Methane-Rich “Fire Ice”

by | published August 27th, 2014

During the height of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy four years ago, I had my graduate students monitor the flow of oil from the sunken platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of their work involved rather straightforward calculations based on undersea camera footage.

But from time to time, flimsy protoplasmic-like structures would float across the screen. The students called them “ghosts.”

One student even casually wondered, “What if the ghosts had caused all of this?”

With that, I walked over, checked some figures, and immediately called the U.S. Coast Guard contingent that was overseeing the data from the disaster.

Fast forward to today, and there have been some equally disquieting discoveries in the news of late.

So what do mysterious holes in the Siberian permafrost, hundreds of gas plumes off the East Coast, and our “ghosts” apparently have in common?

It seems to be icy methane hydrates, touted by some as the fuel of the future…

Solving the Siberian Crater Mystery

According to an April study issued in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, permafrost soil, which typically remains frozen all year, is thawing and decomposing at an accelerating rate.

This process is releasing more methane into the atmosphere, causing the greenhouse effect to increase global temperatures, potentially creating a positive feedback situation in which even more permafrost begins to melt.

“The world is getting warmer, and the additional release of gas would only add to our problems,” said Jeff Chanton of Florida State University, a member of the study group. He added that, if the permafrost completely melts, there would be five times the current amount of carbon equivalent in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that corresponds with what Russian scientists found when they analyzed the giant mystery craters that were recently discovered in the Siberian Yamal Peninsula.

Andrei Plekhanov of the Russian Scientific Center of Arctic Studies, who led an expedition to the first crater, told the journal Nature in late July that his team found concentrations of methane approaching 9.6% at the crater’s floor.

That’s more than 53,600 times higher than the average of amount of methane usually found in the atmosphere (measuring 0.000179%).

Now, scientists are worried that warming temperatures are going to create the conditions for more permafrost melting, releasing additional methane in those areas (like Yamal) where there are major natural gas deposits.

Then there is the problem that was disclosed over the weekend.

On Sunday (August 24), a study released online in the publication Nature Geoscience described the discovery of 570 plumes of methane “percolating” off the East Coast of the U.S.

The research is based on data collected in a survey from 2011 to 2013 by the research vessel Okeanos Explorer. Equipped with multi-beam sonar along its hull, the vessel not only mapped the sea floor along a path off the coast of North Carolina to Massachusetts, but also recorded the reflections in the water column, discovering the distinctive signature of methane gas bubbles.

Most of the seeps were found at depths of 180 to 600 meters along the upper slope of the continental margin. This is the area where the continental shelf rapidly falls off to a 5,000 meter deep ocean plain.

As Science reporter Eric Hand puts it: “The seeps suggest that methane’s contribution to climate change has been underestimated in some models. And because most of the seeps lie at depths where small changes in temperature could be releasing the methane, it is possible that climate change itself could be playing a role in turning some of them on.”

Methane Hydrates: A Flirtation with Disaster?

Apart from the relationship between climate change concerns and methane emissions, there is another factor to consider when it comes to methane hydrates.

And it’s one that puts this entire discussion of alien-looking holes in the Siberian wilderness and columns of bubbles in the Atlantic squarely in our area of interest. Methane hydrates are seen by some as the next major source of energy.

In fact, Japan – a nation dependent upon imports for virtually all of its energy- has embarked on the largest project ever attempted to develop vast reserves of offshore methane hydrates.

Methane hydrates, or methane clathrate, is an ice-like substance that consists of methane gas and water. Methane is the chief ingredient in natural gas. Since this substance is highly flammable, it’s sometimes referred to as “fire ice.”

The Arctic region in general and the area off Alaska in particular, are known to have expansive amounts of these hydrates.

So how much energy are we talking about?

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that gas hydrates could contain between 10,000 trillion cubic feet to more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. When brought to the surface, one cubic foot of gas hydrate releases 164 cubic feet of natural gas.

However, as Hand points out, “This immense reservoir is thought to contain 10 times as much carbon as the atmosphere.”

That is where any attempt to develop this plentiful new energy supply encounters a major potential roadblock.

Hand puts it this way…

“The gas, if it reaches the atmosphere, is far more potent than carbon dioxide as a heat trapper. Even in the more likely event that aerobic microbes devour the methane while still in the ocean, it is converted to carbon dioxide, which leads to ocean acidification. Some scientists have implicated runaway methane hydrate releases in the catastrophic extinctions of marine life at the Permian-Triassic boundary, 252 million years ago.”

Think of the danger this way, you could have a major aquatic biosphere one year and nothing the next.

So while natural gas is often touted (quite correctly) as a cleaner source of energy than either crude oil or coal, methane hydrates could become a huge greenhouse gas problem.

Now, I admit that it will be difficult to establish climate change as the cause of the emissions in Siberia and the Atlantic.

But the broader concerns over what the “dirtier” (i.e., much heavier carbon concentrated) methane hydrates could do environmentally are another matter entirely. The emissions now capturing the attention of the press could well trigger additional climate problems in a dangerous cycle of cause and effect.

And there is another disquieting revelation. Methane hydrates can become unstable… and explode. That seems to be what happened in Siberia.

That brings me back to my student’s observation in 2010. Because the “ghosts” he was watching were dissolving hydrate chains floating up from the seabed in the immediate region surrounding the wellhead.

I still think this was the primary cause of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

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  1. Victoria
    August 27th, 2014 at 10:42 | #1

    Climate change has nothing to do with humans, and the global temp has not risen in about a decade.

  2. Robert Sands
    August 27th, 2014 at 10:53 | #2

    Please explain “primary cause” of Deepwater Horizon events as related to to methane hydrate chains. Where is the oxidizer to facilitate combustion of hydrates in a deep well? I don’t see how a methane hydrate chain could create the pressure problem that is said to be the source of the well failure (I assumed it was geologic compression). Or perhaps the high pressure in this deep well contributed to the formation of the hydrate. I would like more detailed explanation, Kent. Interesting, however.

  3. James Brown
    August 27th, 2014 at 11:23 | #3

    The fact is we are not doing anything like what needs to be done. Senator John McCain wanted to go to war building nuclear plant. I have always considered Biofuel, wind, and solar as tools of the oil industry. When it comes to B.S. the United States has more then it share. Oil runs the show, and they will kill the future for all of us. Just because you have lots of money it doesn’t mean you have brains.

    August 27th, 2014 at 11:31 | #4

    These hydrates are old news. At least several years back I saw maps of these enormous reserves. Even then it was expected that they would harvested by suctioning them to the surface.
    Great for countries/states like Hawaii/Japan that would have such easy access.
    I wonder why it has taken so long to become news.

  5. Lennie M. Nimblett
    August 27th, 2014 at 11:38 | #5

    A probable cause? Yes. But has not the judicial process determined the cause and responsibility for the debacle?

  6. J.Boily
    August 27th, 2014 at 12:55 | #6

    I might be true that the total methane hydrate has trap 10 time the weight of the atmosphere in Methane. However, as a fuel, Methane as such is as clean if not cleaner than natural gas.
    I would hope that we will transition to safer energy supply, but in the mean time, “Fire Ice” is a good energy resource.

  7. Mike Slavin
    August 27th, 2014 at 13:20 | #7

    Need to develop carbon reclamation at the smoke stack for all the new fossil fuels coming on-line. Can use this resource to create construction materials such as graphene, buckyballs/tubes/sheets, carbon fibers, etc. Nanomaterial firms are working on the fabrication techniques now. Challenge is to overcome the cost-price point obstacle and businesses’ desire to fabricate products based on planned obsolescence.
    (By the way, all water (sea & fresh) has plenty of free oxygen in it, it’s just a dissolved gas. Only in coastal areas, lakes & rivers do you see oxygen-depleted dead zones from algae blooms that die off and decompose.)

  8. August 27th, 2014 at 15:46 | #8

    James, just because you oppose something doesn’t mean you have brains.

  9. Malcolm Jensen
    August 27th, 2014 at 19:22 | #9

    Dream on, Victoria.

  10. Helen
    August 27th, 2014 at 22:18 | #10

    You’re right, the news has been around, but many newsmagazines are too stodgy to report something that sounds impossible, like “fire-ice.”
    I read about it in “The New American” magazine back in 2007. But the rest of them were too busy making you think that we are running out of everything except solar and wind!

  11. Dave
    August 27th, 2014 at 22:48 | #11

    A large number of REAL climatologists and meteorologists — including (1) the founder of The Weather Channel (John Coleman) and (2) a highly decorated director of NOAA’s National Hurricane Center (Max Mayfield) — agree with Victoria and STRONGLY disagree with you. Also, perhaps you’re unaware of the thorough expose of the entire warmist scam when a trove of emails exchanged between some key Warm Mongers in PA and GB were made public? BTW: plantfe — an

  12. August 28th, 2014 at 07:39 | #12

    frozen methane remains “frozen” underwater until T, P conditions warm It up enough to volatilize the gobs to methane gas..Once that happens the gas expands and rapidly comes to the surface where it vents to the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse warming.. so the cycle continues until warming of the oceans just enough to trigger massive amounts of methane hydrate gasification at which point things get really out of hand…I mean REAL GLOBAL WARMING that melts the polar ice cap and reverses or at least halts the N Atlantic drift. at which point the whole East coast of America freezes up again and the cycle repeats…over geological timeframe.

    Once the oceanbed water temp raises enough to volatilize frozen methane causing methane gas to vent through the ocean/atmosphere interface, watch out for ships losing buoyancy, explosive gas mixtures igniting etc…

    And we are arrogant enough to think that human consumption of carbon fuels are harming the planet? when natural methane volatilz=ization phenomena and volvanic CO2 emmissions dwarf human contributions to greebnhouse warming…We humans are a funny bunch.

  13. August 28th, 2014 at 07:42 | #13

    Let’s not worry too much about things w cannot change.

  14. Rex Alfonso
    August 18th, 2016 at 18:49 | #14

    Hans, worry sells (print, film & video) documentaries and what passes for news these days. The calmer among us try to rationally work through the physics and determine if there is (or is not)an issue, then calmly solve the problem.

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