Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Methane, Mud, and Global Warming

If you missed the never-ending "mud volcano" of Java, possibly brought on by drilling for natural gas, you may want to pay attention to Japan's plan for drilling for undersea methane to relieve it's chronic petroleum dependency. According to Bloomberg:

"Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced water buried in sediment some 3,000 feet under the Pacific Ocean floor, may help Japan win energy independence from the Middle East and Indonesia. Japanese engineers have found enough ``flammable ice'' to meet its gas use demands for 14 years. The trick is extracting it without damaging the environment.

Japan is joining the U.S. and Canada in test drilling for methane even as scientists express concerns about any uncontrolled release of the frozen chemical. Some researchers blame the greenhouse gas for triggering a global firestorm that helped wipe out the dinosaurs."

The article goes on to detail scientific concern that uncontrolled methane release may accelerate global warming far beyond what we've seen with CO2 alone.

``A mass release of methane into the sea and the atmosphere is a risk for global warming,'' he says. ``Massive landslides at the ocean floor must be avoided when drilling at the Nankai Trough.''

Undersea Landslides

Undersea landsides triggered by volcanoes that occurred more than fifty million years ago resulted in the release of methane hydrate, contributing to global warming that lasted tens of thousands of years, says Matsumoto."

Science Daily gives more info on the possible consequences:

"Analogous to the Earth's current situation, greenhouse warming 55 million years ago was caused by a relatively rapid increase of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. This phase, known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), was studied using sediments that accumulated 55 million years ago on the ocean floor in what is now New Jersey.

The new study shows that a large proportion of the greenhouse gases was released as a result of a chain-reaction of events. Probably due to intense volcanic activity, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere became higher and the ensuing greenhouse effect warmed the Earth. As a result, submarine methane hydrates (ice-like structures in which massive amounts of methane are stored) melted and released large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

This further amplified the magnitude of global warming, which comprised about 6o C in total. The study is the first to show such a chain reaction during rapid warming in a 'greenhouse world'.

The new research confirms that global warming can stimulate mechanisms that release massive amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere. Current and future warming will likely see similar effects, such as methane hydrate dissociation, adding additional greenhouse gases to those resulting from fossil fuel burning."

All of which tends to make me very nervous given the combination of short-term gain, lack of knowledge, and the pressures the peak oil world. Poke something enough and it will poke back.

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