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Ocean methane hydrates – the hidden canary?

Ocean Floor methane hydrate

Ocean floor methane hydrates (NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

On the ocean floor, there is some frozen stuff called ‘methane hydrates.’ Methane hydrates have been known to oceanographers and oil and gas people for a while now, but they started gaining mainstream attention when their arctic land cousins became yet another poster child for climate change.

In the ocean, methane hydrates only form in cold waters under quite a bit of pressure. As such, they tend to prefer waters where the depth is between 300 and 1000m, and the temperature is hovering at less than 2oC. The take home point is – they form in a very limited environment and do not cover the ocean floor of the planet! More information can be found on Wikipedia and at World Ocean Review.

The methane hydrates themselves are methane gas molecules which have become trapped in an icy lattice of frozen water. The methane is the result of the slow decomposition of organic materials (ie dead fish!) on the ocean floor. However, as the water temperatures near the coasts of continents begins to rise, the ice is slowly melting and the methane is seeping back out into the ocean.

For the oil and gas people – particularly gas – methane hydrates appear to be a fantastic source of natural gas, the schizophrenic choice of the green movement to ween the human populace off fossil fuels (I’ve never understood that – to ween people off oil and coal which emit CO2, we move to natural gas, which is largely methane and a WORSE greenhouse gas??? If nothing else, even if ‘less’ methane is released right now as a result of burning natural gas, if we switched entirely over to natural gas to meet current energy demands, I’m sure its impact would be every bit as bad as the current perceived impact of CO2!).

But I digress. On December 9, 2014, Science Daily posted an article based on something submitted to the Geophysical Research Letters by the University of Washington. In the article, the authors argue that the waters of Washington at 500m depth are warming (even though the data was ‘messy’) – the same depth were methane hydrates form. So there they are bubbling away…

However, a lot of questions remain unanswered by this information – and some of the answers may not favour those who believe we can modify the climate by regulating fossil fuel emissions!

For startes, as the Science Daily article points out, even if the methane hydrates starts melting, no one knows where the methane will go – will it be consumed by bacteria on the ocean floor? Will it rise up through the ocean water and go into the atmosphere, adding to whatever greenhouse gases are roaming through our atmosphere?

Additional questions to ask also are – when did this warming at those depth begin? Did it begin 10,000 years ago when the ice age ended? Has it ebbed and flowed since? We’ve only even been aware methane hydrates existed for 40 years – and for soemthing as relatively slow moving as the ocean floor, that is really too small a time period to draw any firm conclusions. Sure.. the ocean methane hydrates off Washington might be melting right now, but others off the east coast of North America might be growing as more ice melt from Greenland cools water temperatures at depth.

And since we don’t even know what methane bubbling out of methane hydrates is doing today – staying in the ocean or moving into our atmosphere or if it is just some portion which we dont’ have a clue about as it is not even known how much of the ocean floor contains methane hydrates (its been modeled and guessed at, but so far, initial exploration indicates it is less than originally thought – but more than maybe land-based natural gas deposits…).

Meanwhile, I have to ask – are the climate models capturing the release of methane from ocean (and possibly land) at all in the warming models? It is HIGHLY unlikely as sniffing over the arctic has only begun in the last couple of summers. Calculations for the oceans haven’t even begun.

And what does this mean for warming and the modeling of climate change? What if the warming (or lack thereof) we are seeing at present is actually due more to the release of natural methane in its own little feedback loop, and not from burning fossil fuels? What does this mean for all those government plans to regulate the burning of fossil fuel in a desperate bid to regulate the climate? What does this mean for all those climate models which aren’t taking this into account?

In conclusion…

At the end  of the day, I’d say this is just another reason why adaptation not modification is going to be more successful for the human race. No matter what the environmental movement preach, there are a lot more variables that contribute to climate change than are put into the climate models. Thinking we can turn back the clock to a pre-1850s’ level of climate change by simply reducing CO2 emissions is simplistic at best. The odds are there feedback loops- not currently captured in climate models which are contributing to both warming and cooling on the planet, and there the black and white answer of cutting CO2 emissions are not going to win.

Meanwhile, undoubtedly, any warming trend will be attributed soley to rising fossil fuel emissions by the environmental movement, even though the very models they are basing their dire warming predictions on, have to factor in other variables to get their projected trends. So any warming as the result of melting methane hydrates will not be singled out in the message about warming.

The human race needs to adapt and be prepared for climate change (both warming and cooling)  and give up the foolish dream of trying to control the Earth’s climate – we may have conquered the lithosphere (land), but we haven’t made much of a dent on controlling the hydrosphere (oceans, ice)  or atmosphere, and those are very big system beyond our control!

About Sally G

Sally is an Earth Scientist with experience in geology and geomorphology. She has always had an interest in general science.