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Bubbles of Doom: Methane Under the Sea

First methane poked mysterious holes in the Siberian tundra. Now it’s bubbling up in 570 clusters off the east coast of United States, like a busted pipeline of pollution along the edge of the continental slope break. Methane: It’s one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen, and one metric ton of flammable hurt—heating up the atmosphere with its no-good gassy indifference.

Source: USGS

But methane is also the main component in natural gas, which environmentalists tell us is the responsible alternative to coal and petroleum. It’s what propels all those buses in our hippie cities like Portland and Los Angeles. Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles emit up to 90 percent less pollution than their gasoline-sucking counterparts. Plus, we’ve got a hefty supply of natural gas, in the form of methane, right here in the good ol’ US of A. No need to meddle in parts of the world where we’re not welcome.

So methane: Good or bad?

Answer: Yes! But let’s put on our truth goggles and dive into the morass for a closer look.

Source: Credit: NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS The ROV Jason inspects a methane gas seep that is teeming with life; including sea urchins and mussels.

These newly discovered methane vents have likely been bubbling up from the East Coast seabed since Leif Eriksson was cooking bison over a campfire in Newfoundland (i.e., about 1,000 years ago). It’s the same form of methane that has been trapped in the Arctic permafrost for eons but is now being released as the permafrost turns to sludge. That’s the good and bad of methane. As National Geographic says, “Burn natural gas and it warms your house. But let it leak from fracked wells or the melting Arctic, and it warms the whole planet.” Ideally, we would control the capture and release of natural gas for our houses and cars, but, as always, Mother Nature has other ideas.

Source: A. Skarke, Mississippi State University. Let’s hope these vents aren’t anywhere near Bikini Bottom, although that would explain a lot.

Interestingly, the underwater methane is trapped in an ice-like substance called methane hydrate (or methane clathrate for you chemistry majors). Now that the ocean’s temperature is rising, this ice is melting, releasing the methane and contributing to ocean acidification. There’s no evidence yet that the methane is reaching the atmosphere, but it’s a hypothesis that will be a major source of research in the coming years. In other fun science facts, take a match to methane hydrate and instead of a puddle, you’ve got yourself a campfire:

Source: USGS. A hunka hunka burning ice.

Research in the coming years will focus on the extent to which the rising ocean temperatures and the melting hydrate become a pernicious feedback loop.  More practical minded scientists will be thinking of ways they can harness the escaping methane as a useful source of energy.

Source: Andrew Melo, 2012,

According to a report from BBC News, the 570 U.S. vents could be, ahem, simply the tip of the iceberg. More than 30,000 of them may exist worldwide, containing up to 10 times more carbon than the Earth’s atmosphere. So, if it all starts bubbling up to the ocean’s surface and beyond, it’ll be time to don your gas mask. In the meantime, take a gander at these little ice nuggets. They’re just the thing to chill your cocktail:

Source: USGS.

Okay, this is a rambling post, because methane hydrate is a big topic and because I lack the brain power to distill it to its pithy essence. In closing, here are some other useful and interesting facts about methane hydrates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

  1. Methane hydrate can host its very own species of animals, such as hydrate ice worms that feed off specialized bacteria associated with the hydrate.
  2. Methane hydrate reserves on the ocean floor may hold up to three times more stored energy than undersea petroleum reserves.
  3. Local meltdowns of methane hydrate can cause “massive continental slope failure.”
  4. “Massive hydrate dissolution events . . . are possible causes of some of the abrupt climate changes seen in the geologic record.”


Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: September 2, 2014, 9:04 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

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