March 2013 Archives

Only so much CH4 in the ocean

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I just saw this article in the NY Times announcing that Japan has "extracted gas from offshore deposits of methane hydrate."  Methane hydrates (or clathrates) are an interesting chemical compound that forms when methane (CH4) interacts with water at cold temperatures.  The two molecules interact to form a crystal, producing a solid substance with a "sherbet-like consistency" (according to the article).  Deposits of methane hydrates are found all over the world in the deep ocean and in the Arctic.  The big news was that this was the first commercial-scale extraction of methane hydrates, potentially opening up another source of natural gas.

What bugged me about the article was that the reporter said that "the exact properties of undersea hydrates and how they might affect the environment are still poorly understood."  This is true in the sense that we don't know the consequences of something like a methane hydrate spill.  However, we do know of one very large effect on the environment from methane hydrate extraction: climate change.  

The goal of commercial scale extraction is to provide natural gas for energy.  Getting that energy requires burning the methane, producing CO2.  Opening up commercial scale extraction of a new fossil fuel is essentially increasing the potential for climate change.  You could certainly make a case that the global-warming calculus is not all bad.  Burning natural gas produces more watts per unit of CO2 released.  If natural gas is used to displace more carbon dense fuels like coal or oil, that would be a good thing, at least in the short term.  What's tweaked me, though, is the last time the world saw a major release of methane hydrates, bad things happened.

Yes, dear reader, I'm talking about the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.  This was a very abrupt warming event that occurred 55 million years ago.  The warming was associated with a shift in the carbon isotopes from that period that suggest a massive release of carbon, either methane or CO2, into the atmosphere.  One hypothesis is that the earth was gradually warming at that time and that it crossed a threshold where methane hydrates began to melt.  CH4 is a very potent greenhouse gas, and the idea is that this created a positive feedback loop: warming -->methane release-->more warming-->more methane.  There are other hypotheses for the PETM's carbon source, and the methane hydrate hypothesis can't account for all of the carbon, but connection between carbon and PETM is one of the strongest pieces of evidence in the paleo-record supporting a link between carbon and warming.  From an oceanographic perspective, the scary thing about the PETM was that the extra dissolved carbon in the ocean made the water more acidic, enough to eliminate the deposition of calcium carbonate in the ocean.  Yikes.

OK, that was a bit of a downer.  Here's something that will hopefully cheer you up.


In addition to featuring the best Hammond organ-tenor sax combination of any song I can think of, "Only so much oil in the ground" is the best environmental-themed song ever.

EMLab 2013

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The lab had it's annual workshop (the EMLab does not retreat) last week.  The lab has been doing a group project to understand trophic cascades (or lack thereof) in the ocean, and the workshop was our attempt to write a paper in a day.  We came very close, and learned that the key to writing a paper in a day is put in several days of work before hand. We'll be revising the paper over the next few months and hope to have something to share by the summer.  In the meantime, here is a picture of us:
EMLab2013sm.jpg
photo by Petrie Tuohima (GMRI)
Left to right: Karen Stamieszkin (grad student), Carrie Byron (research associate at UNE), baby (fetus), Dom Fitzpatrick (grad student), Katie Wurtzell (grad student), Andy Pershing (guy who buys the coffee), Nick Record (visiting prof. at Bowdoin), Elise Koob (technician), Walt Golet (postdoc), and Kathy Mills (postdoc).

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