SURFACE WATER OVER THE EASTERN SIBERIAN ARCTIC
The sea surface above the East Siberian
is full of ice and bubbles.
Sonar is the only way to detect
the vast clouds of methane bubbles rising from the seafloor.
Igor Semiletov, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Dee Finney's blog
Start date July 20, 2011
Today's date December 17, 2011
I listened to Dr. Bill Deagle this afternoon from last Friday's radio show.
He was all freaked out by methane in the Arctic, and he said that the military
pulled back 100 miles from the Gulf disaster because they were afraid of a
tsunami coming on shore due to a possible methane explosion out to sea.
You can hear the show here;
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
||16.04 g mol−1
||16.031300128 g mol−1
- 655.6 mg dm−3 (1 atm)
- 644.3 mg dm−3 (at 300 K)
°C; −305.4 °F
°C; −260 °F
||35 mg dm−3 (at 17 °C)
Std enthalpy of
o298 |−74.87 kJ mol−1
Std enthalpy of
o298 |−891.1–−890.3 kJ mol−1
o298 |186.25 J K−1 mol−1
Specific heat capacity, C
||35.69 J K−1 mol−1
GHS signal word
GHS hazard statements
GHS precautionary statements
Supplementary data page
Solid, liquid, gas
Except where noted otherwise, data are given for materials in
standard state (at 25 °C, 100 kPa)
/ˈmɛθeɪn/ or /ˈmiːθeɪn/) is a
chemical compound with the
chemical formula CH4.
It is the simplest
the principal component of
natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on
earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive
However, because it is a
normal conditions, methane is difficult to transport from its
Methane is a relatively potent
greenhouse gas. The concentration of methane in the Earth's
atmosphere in 1998, expressed as a
mole fraction, was 1745 nmol/mol (parts per billion, ppb), up from
700 nmol/mol in 1750. By 2008, however, global methane levels, which had
stayed mostly flat since 1998, had risen to 1,800 nmol/mol.
Properties and bonding
Methane is a tetrahedral molecule with four equivalent C-H bonds. Its
electronic structure is described by four bonding molecular orbitals (MOs)
resulting from the overlap of the valence orbitals on C and H. The lowest energy
MO is the result of the overlap of the 2s orbital on carbon with the in-phase
combination of the 1s orbitals on the four hydrogen atoms. Above this level in
energy is a triply degenerate set of MOs that involve overlap if the 2p orbitals
on carbon with various linear combinations of the 1s orbitals on hydrogen. The
resulting "three-over-one" bonding scheme is consistent with photoelectron
room temperature and
standard pressure, methane is a colorless, odorless gas.
The familiar smell of natural gas as used in homes is a safety measure achieved
by the addition of an
ethanethiol. Methane has a boiling point of −161 °C
at a pressure of one
As a gas it is
flammable only over a narrow range of concentrations (5–15%) in air. Liquid
methane does not burn unless subjected to high pressure (normally 4–5
Main reactions with methane are:
steam reforming to
halogenation. In general, methane reactions are difficult to control.
Partial oxidation to
for example, is challenging because the reaction typically progresses all the
carbon dioxide and
water even with
incomplete amounts of oxygen. The enzymes
methane monooxygenase can produce methanol from methane, but they cannot be
used for industrial scale reactions.
Like other hydrocarbons, methane is a very weak acid. Its pKa in
DMSO is estimated to be 56.
It cannot be deprotonated in solution, but the
methyl lithium is known. Protonation of methane can be achieved with
super acids to give CH5+, sometimes called the
methanium ion. Despite the strength of its C-H bonds, there is intense
catalysts that facilitate
C–H bond activation in methane (and other low
combustion of methane, several steps are involved. An early intermediate is
formaldehyde (HCHO or H2CO).
Oxidation of formaldehyde gives the formyl
radical (HCO), which then give
carbon monoxide (CO):
- CH4 + O2 → CO + H2 + H2O
The resulting H2
oxidizes to H2O,
This reaction occurs very quickly, usually in significantly less than a
- 2 H2 + O2 → 2 H2O
Finally, the CO
oxidizes, forming CO2
and releasing more heat. This process is generally slower than the other
chemical steps, and typically requires a few to several milliseconds to occur.
- 2 CO + O2 → 2 CO2
The result of the above is the following total equation:
- CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O (ΔH
= −891 kJ/mol
(at standard conditions))
Reactions with halogens
Methane reacts with halogens given appropriate conditions as follows:
- CH4 + X2 → CH3X + HX
where X is a
(Br), or iodine
(I). This mechanism for this process is called
free radical halogenation, beginning with the attach of Cl· radicals on
methane to produce CH3·, which combines with a second Cl· to give
methyl chloride (CH3Cl). Similar reactions will produce
(CHCl3), and, ultimately,
carbon tetrachloride (CCl4). The energy required to start this
reaction comes from UV radiation or heating.
Methane is used in industrial chemical processes and may be transported as a
refrigerated liquid (liquefied natural gas, or
While leaks from a refrigerated liquid container are initially heavier than air
due to the increased density of the cold gas, the gas at ambient temperature is
lighter than air.
Gas pipelines distribute large amounts of natural gas, of which methane is
the principal component.
Methane is important for
electrical generation by burning it as a fuel in a
turbine or steam
Compared to other
hydrocarbon fuels, burning methane produces less
carbon dioxide for each unit of heat released. At about 891 kJ/mol,
heat of combustion is lower than any other hydrocarbon but the ratio of the
heat of combustion (891 kJ/mol) to the molecular mass (16.0 g/mol, of which 12.0
g/mol is carbon) shows that methane, being the simplest hydrocarbon, produces
more heat per mass unit (55.7 kJ/g) than other complex hydrocarbons. In many
cities, methane is piped into homes for domestic
heating and cooking purposes. In this context it is usually known as
gas, and is considered to have an energy content of 39
megajoules per cubic meter, or 1,000
standard cubic foot.
Methane in the form of
compressed natural gas is used as a
vehicle fuel and is claimed to be more environmentally friendly than other
fossil fuels such as gasoline/petrol and diesel.
methods of methane storage for this purpose has been conducted.
Research is being conducted by
NASA on methane's
potential as a
Methane emitted from coal mines has been converted to electricity.
Although there is great interest in converting methane into useful or more
easily liquified compounds, the only practical processes are relatively
unselective. In the chemical industry, methane is converted to
synthesis gas, a mixture of
carbon monoxide and hydrogen, by
steam reforming. This endergonic process (requiring energy) utilizes
catalysts and requires high temperatures, around 700–1100 °C:
- CH4 + 2 H2O → CO2 + 4 H2
Related chemistries are exploited in the
Haber-Bosch Synthesis of ammonia from air, which is reduced with natural gas
to a mixture of
Methane is also subjected to free-radical
chlorination in the production of chloromethanes, although methanol is a
more typical precursor.
Naturally occurring methane is mainly produced by the process of
methanogenesis. This multistep process is used by microorganisms as an
energy source. The net reaction is:
- CO2 + 8 H+ + 8 e- → CH4 + 2
The final step in the process is catalysed by the enzyme
methyl-coenzyme M reductase. Methanogenesis is a form of
anaerobic respiration used by organisms that occupy
ruminants (e.g., cattle), and the guts of termites.
It is uncertain if plants are a source of methane emissions.
Natural gas is so abundant that the intentional production of methane would
be unusual. Methane can be produced by
hydrogenation carbon dioxide through the
Sabatier process. It is also a side product of the hydrogenation of carbon
monoxide in the
Fischer-Tropsch process. This technology is practiced on a large scale to
produce longer chain molecules than methane.
Methane was discovered and isolated by
Alessandro Volta between 1776 and 1778 when studying marsh gas from
Maggiore. It is the major component of natural gas, about 87% by volume. The
major source of methane is extraction from geological deposits known as
natural gas fields, with
coal seam gas extraction becoming a major source (see
Coal bed methane extraction, a method for extracting methane from a
coal deposit, while
enhanced coal bed methane recovery is a method of recovering methane from an
non-minable coal seams). It is associated with other
hydrocarbon fuels, and sometimes accompanied by
The gas at shallow levels (low pressure) forms by
organic matter and reworked methane from deep under the Earth's surface. In
general, sediments buried deeper and at higher temperatures than those that
generate natural gas.
It is generally transported in bulk by
pipeline in its natural gas form, or
carriers in its liquefied form; few countries transport it by truck.
Apart from gas fields, an alternative method of obtaining methane is via
generated by the
fermentation of organic matter including
wastewater sludge, municipal solid waste (including landfills), or any other
biodegradable feedstock, under anaerobic conditions.
Rice fields also
generate large amounts of methane during plant growth.
Methane hydrates/clathrates (ice-like combinations of methane and water on
the sea floor, found in vast quantities) are a potential future source of
methane. Cattle belch methane accounts for 16% of the world's annual methane
emissions to the atmosphere.
One study reported that the livestock sector in general (primarily cattle,
chickens, and pigs) produces 37% of all human-induced methane.
Early research has found a number of medical treatments and dietary adjustments
that help slightly limit the production of methane in
A more recent study, in 2009, found that at a conservative estimate, at least
51% of global greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to the life cycle and
supply chain of livestock products, meaning all meat, dairy, and by-products,
and their transportation.
Methane is created near the Earth's surface, primarily by microorganisms by
the process of
methanogenesis. It is carried into the
stratosphere by rising air in the
Uncontrolled build-up of methane in the atmosphere is naturally checked —
although human influence can upset this natural regulation — by methane's
hydroxyl radicals formed from
singlet oxygen atoms and with water vapor. It has a net lifetime of about 10
and is primarily removed by conversion to carbon dioxide and water
Methane also affects the degradation of the
In addition, there is a large (but unknown) amount of methane in
methane clathrates in the ocean floors as well as the Earth's
crust. Most methane is the result of biological process called
In 2010, methane levels in the Arctic were measured at 1850 nmol/mol, a level
over twice as high as at any time in the previous 400,000 years. Historically,
methane concentrations in the world's atmosphere have ranged between 300 and 400
nmol/mol during glacial periods commonly known as
ice ages, and
between 600 to 700 nmol/mol during the warm
interglacial periods. It has a high
global warming potential: 72 times that of
carbon dioxide over 20 years, and 25 times over 100 years,
and the levels are rising.
Methane in the Earth's atmosphere is an important
greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 25 compared to CO2
over a 100-year period (although accepted figures probably represents an
This means that a methane emission will have 25 times the effect on temperature
of a carbon dioxide emission of the same mass over the following 100 years.
Methane has a large effect for a brief period (a net lifetime of 8.4 years in
the atmosphere), whereas carbon dioxide has a small effect for a long period
(over 100 years). Because of this difference in effect and time period, the
global warming potential of methane over a 20 year time period is 72. The
Earth's atmospheric methane concentration has increased by about 150% since
1750, and it accounts for 20% of the total
radiative forcing from all of the long-lived and globally mixed greenhouse
gases (these gases don't include water vapour which is by far the largest
component of the greenhouse effect).
Usually, excess methane from landfills and other natural producers of methane is
burned so CO2 is released into the atmosphere instead of methane,
because methane is a more effective greenhouse gas. Recently, methane emitted
from coal mines has been successfully utilized to generate electricity.
Arctic methane release from
methane clathrates is an expected consequence of
Methane is not toxic; however, it is extremely flammable and may form
explosive mixtures with air. Methane is violently reactive with
halogens, and some halogen-containing compounds. Methane is also an
asphyxiant and may displace
oxygen in an
Asphyxia may result if the oxygen concentration is reduced to below about
16% by displacement, as most people can
tolerate a reduction from 21% to 16% without ill effects. The concentration
of methane at which asphyxiation risk becomes significant is much higher than
the 5–15% concentration in a flammable or explosive mixture. Methane off-gas can
penetrate the interiors of buildings near
and expose occupants to significant levels of methane. Some buildings have
specially engineered recovery systems below their basements to actively capture
this gas and vent it away from the building.
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Blast, NASA, May 4, 2007. Current methane engines in development
produce a thrust of 7,500
kN), which is far from the 7,000,000 lbf (31 MN) needed to launch
Space Shuttle. Instead, such engines will most likely propel voyages
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Methane has been detected or is believed to exist in several locations of the
solar system. In most cases, it is believed to have been created by
abiotic processes. Possible exceptions are
- Moon –
traces are outgassed from the surface
- Mars – the
atmosphere contains 10 nmol/mol
methane. In January 2009, NASA scientists announced that they had discovered
that the planet often vents methane into the atmosphere in specific areas,
leading some to speculate this may be a sign of biological activity going on
below the surface.
– the atmosphere contains about 0.3% methane
– the atmosphere contains about 0.4% methane
Titan — the atmosphere contains 1.6% methane and thousands of
methane lakes have been detected on the surface
In the upper atmosphere the methane is converted into more complex
acetylene, a process that also produces molecular
hydrogen. There is evidence that acetylene and hydrogen are recycled
into methane near the surface. This suggests the presence either of an
exotic catalyst, or an unfamiliar form of methanogenic life.
Enceladus – the atmosphere contains 1.7% methane
– the atmosphere contains 2.3% methane
Ariel – methane is believed to be a constituent of Ariel's surface
Oberon – about 20% of Oberon's surface ice is composed of
methane-related carbon/nitrogen compounds
Titania – about 20% of Titania's surface ice is composed of
methane-related organic compounds
Umbriel – methane is a constituent of Umbriel's surface ice
– the atmosphere contains 1.6% methane
Triton – Triton has a tenuous nitrogen atmosphere with small amounts
of methane near the surface.
- Pluto –
spectroscopic analysis of Pluto's surface reveals it to contain traces
Charon – methane is believed present on Charon, but it is not
Eris – infrared light from the object revealed the presence of methane
Comet Hyakutake – terrestrial observations found
methane in the comet
HD 189733b – This is the first detection of an organic compound on a
planet outside the solar system. Its origin is unknown, since the planet's
high temperature (700 °C) would normally favor the formation of
carbon monoxide instead.
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Arctic methane warming danger
University of Alaska, Fairbanks
Part of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen
methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the
powerful greenhouse gas, according to new research findings.
The study, published this month in the journal Science, shows that
the frozen seabed under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be
an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and leaking large
amounts of the gas into the atmosphere.
The Shelf is a very methane-rich area encompassing more than two million
square kilometres of seafloor in the Arctic - more than three times as large
as the nearby Siberian wetlands, which have long been considered the primary
source of atmospheric methane in the Northern Hemisphere.
With methane a potent greenhouse gas - with 25 times the warming
potential of carbon dioxide - release of even a fraction of the Shelf's
stores could trigger abrupt climate warming, according to lead researchers
Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, from the University of Alaska in
"The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic
Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world's oceans,"
Shakhova said. "Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable
Her team's research shows that the Shelf is already releasing around
seven million tonnes of methane each year, about equal to tthe amount of
methane coming from the rest of the ocean.
Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of
destabilisation already," she said. "If it further destabilises, the methane
emissions may not be in [millions of tonnes], it would be significantly
Also of concern, she said, is that in addition to holding large stores of
frozen methane, the Shelf area is also very shallow. In deep water, methane
gas can be converted into the less potent carbon dioxide before it reaches
the surface and enters the atmosphere. In the shallows, there isn't enough
time for this conversion to occur. That, combined with the sheer amount of
methane in the region, could add a previously uncalculated variable to
"The release to the atmosphere of only one per cent of the methane
assumed to be stored in shallow...deposits might alter the current
atmospheric burden of methane up to three to four times," Shakhova said.
"The climatic consequences of this are hard to predict."
Shakhova also noted that the Earth's geological record indicates that
atmospheric methane concentrations have varied between about 0.3 to 0.4
parts per million during cold periods to 0.6 to 0.7 parts per million during
warm periods. Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average
about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years, she said.
Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher.
One of the biggest climatic dangers out there is that warming in
the Arctic will melt the permafrost. The tundra is heavily laden with
methane – a potent greenhouse gas. In total, the ten million square kilometres
contain about 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon (3,670 gigatonnes of carbon
dioxide). The permafrost contains more carbon dioxide equivalent than the entire
atmosphere at present.
If even a fraction of a percent of that gets released every year, it would
blow our carbon budget. Even with enormous cuts in human emissions, the planet
would keep on warming. Right now, humanity is emitting about 8 gigatonnes of
carbon a year, on track to hit 11 gigatonnes by 2020. If we were to stabilize at
that level, emitting 11 gigatonnes a year until 2100, the concentration of
greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will surpass 1,000 parts per million,
creating the certainty of a vastly transformed world and a very strong
possibility of the end of human civilization.
As such, it is vital to stop climate change before the planet warms
sufficiently to start melting permafrost. This is especially challenging given
warming in the Arctic is more pronounced than warming elsewhere. There is
also the additional challenge of the sea-ice feedback loop, wherein the
replacement of reflective ice with absorptive water increases warming.
The actions necessary to prevent that are eminently possible. Unfortunately,
people have not yet developed the will to implement them to anything like the
degree necessary. Hopefully, the ongoing UNFCCC process for producing a Kyoto
successor will help set us along that path before it becomes fantastically more
difficult and expensive to act.
[Update: 4 February 2009] Here is a post on the danger of
self-amplifying, runaway climate change:
Is runaway climate change possible? Hansen’s take.
[Update: 19 February 2010] See also:
The threat from methane in the North.
The threat from methane in the North
If catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, it is critical that the
massive stock of greenhouse gas held in the Arctic permafrost and in
undersea deposits called
not be allowed to enter the atmosphere. The permafrost and clathrates
contain methane: a gas that is about 25 times more powerful than carbon
dioxide, when it comes to preventing infrared radiation from escaping into
space, keeping it within the Earth system and warming the planet. As the
planet heats up from human greenhouse gas emissions, the threat of all this
methane getting released increases.
Right now, there is even more methane on Earth than there was before the
Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum
(PETM), a period about 56 million years ago when the methane bound up in the
north got released over the course of several thousand years. Back then,
those emissions made the planet’s temperature rise between 5°C and 9°C – far
beyond the level which would be dangerous for human beings. And remember
that this warming is on top of whatever warming arises directly
from human emissions. According to the modeling conducted by the Met Office
in the United Kingdom, if our emissions continue on a business-as-usual
course, they will generate 5.5 – 6.1°C of warming by 2100. Just imagine what
impact melting clathrates and permafrost could have in addition.
The PETM happened fairly slowly, but was nonetheless accompanied by the
extinction of about half the planet’s marine life. Other species migrated
hundreds or thousands of kilometres, as the climate in different regions
changed. There were no ice sheets during the PETM, whereas Earth currently
has enough ice in Greenland and Antarctica to raise sea levels by more than
sixty metres. Human-induced climate change is happening far faster than what
happened during the PETM. That makes it even harder for plants and animals
to adapt. It also means there is less time for negative feedbacks (like
increased weathering of rocks) to blunt the edge of the warming.
In addition to the vanishing multi-year sea ice, we are already seeing
worrisome degradation of the Arctic permafrost. For instance, researchers in
Quebec have found that the edge of where permafrost is found in one region
moved 130 km in just 50 years. The threat of kicking off a PETM-type
event is one major reason why the warming caused by human beings must be
limited. Because the amount of warming we produce is directly related to how
many fossil fuels we burn, it is critical that humanity make the conscious
choice to limit our fossil fuel usage. For the sake of protecting a planet
that provides the foundation for human prosperity and survival, we need to
leave fossil fuels underground and move to a clean and renewable global
energy system that can keep operating forever.
The Storegga Landslides: Catastrophic Underwater Natural Methane Explosions
Methane is a small molecule made up of a single carbon atom surrounded by
four hydrogen atoms, which exists in an ice-like form variously called “methane
hydrate”, “methane ice” or “methane clathrate”. Clathrate means “cage”, which
describes the structure of methane ice: a cage of water molecules around methane
gas molecules, allowing high methane concentrations. One unit volume of methane
hydrates contain over 160 volumes of methane gas and less than one unit of water
at surface pressures and temperatures. (1) Methane ice burns when it meets fire.
Methane ice was originally thought to occur only in the
outer regions of the solar system. Today it is well known to occur abundantly in
earth’s marine and Arctic permafrost sediments. For example, the United States
has as much as 200,000 trillion cubic feet of methane in hydrate systems in
(Alaskan) permafrost regions and surrounding waters, which is over a hundred
times greater than the estimated conventional US methane gas resource. (2)
Methane ices are known to pose risks for 1) marine safety and 2)
seafloor stability, as follows:
1. Marine Safety and Methane
Arctic and marine hydrates can cause problems during drilling and
production of conventional hydrocarbons. “Difficulties include gas
release during drilling, blowouts, casing collapse and well-site
subsidence. These problems are generally the result of dissociation of
gas hydrates caused by the heat of circulating drilling fluids or flow
of warm production fluids. Pipelines carrying warm fluids may suffer
loss of support due to underlying hydrates,” according to the Department
of Energy’s “Strategy for Methane Hydrates Research and Development.”
(3) Little is known about the long term impacts on seafloor stability
and safety due to methane gas production from methane ice (see more
2. Seafloor Stability, Methane Outgassing, and the Storegga
Methane ices can break down at certain temperatures and pressures,
permitting the gas in the clathrate cages to be released. This process
is what experts believe triggered the ancient catastrophic “Storegga”
submarine landslides off the coast of Norway. The Storegga landslide
complex is a world-class geographic feature and one of the largest areas
of known slope failure anywhere in the world.
The complex consists of three very large underwater landslides known
to have taken place during the last 100,000 years. The landslides
departed from the destabilized slope and “flowed” into the deep ocean
crevasses below. The Second Storegga Slide was large enough to have
caused a megatsunami around 7,100 years ago that triggered widespread
coastal flooding in Scotland, Norway and other coastlines bordering the
eastern North Atlantic and North Sea. (4) For example, at a number of
localities near the eastern coast of Scotland is a sand deposit as deep
as 25 feet above sea level that has been dated to about 7,000 years ago.
One researcher in 1989 proposed that this sand is a megatsunami deposit
resulting from the sediment displacement associated with the Second
Storegga Slide. (5)
Bathymetry and acoustic seafloor imagery of the Storegga Slide have
identified seafloor depressions or “pockmarks” up to 1500 feet in
diameter and less than 15 feet in depth, which are associated with the
presence of gas. (6) The pockmarks are consistent with the remnants of
old methane gas explosion sites that triggered the landslides at
Extensive seafloor mapping following the December 2004 Indonesia
earthquake/tsunami was conducted to identify submarine landslides and
pockmarks similar to those at the Storegga Slide complex. (See “Dramatic
Direct Visuals of the December 2004 Bay of Bengal Epicenter Earthquake
Rupture Zone” at:
http://www.semp.us/biots/biot_187.html; accessed November 26, 2005.)
Commercial Production from Deep Sea Methane Fields
The Storegga Slide was discovered while companies were searching for
oil and gas in the North Sea Northern. “Norsk Hydro”, one of the world's
largest offshore oil companies, discovered the “Ormen Lange” natural gas
(methane) field in the Storegga Slide depression in 1997. The company
has committed to the commercial production of natural (methane) gas from
the Storegga Slide depression even though at a depth of approximately
2,700 feet, the site is so deep that the 24 wellheads and 120 km
pipelines to shore must be built using underwater robot technology and
advanced installation techniques. (7) No conventional offshore platforms
will be used. A direct pipeline will be built from the Norway refinery
Other challenges confronting Norsk Hydro in the commercial production
of methane from the methane fields in the Storegga Slide area are:
1. Subsea temperatures below zero, which cause the methane gas and
water in the pipelines to form brash methane ice, blocking the pipes if
production were to stop. Ensuring good flow in the pipelines is
critical, so Hydro’s solution is to add continuous anti-freeze at the
wellheads to prevent the well stream freezing. The anti-freeze will be
separated out and reused when it arrives onshore.
2. Mountainous seabed topography, requiring difficulty routing of
pipelines through peaks that rise between 90 feet and 180 feet. The
pipelines must be routed through this rocky underwater landscape in such
a way that unsupported pipe spans don’t become too long, allowing
unacceptable vibrations, or ensnare fishing trawler’s nets.
3. Some of the strongest underwater currents anywhere in the world, and
some of the stormiest weather conditions.
4. Requirement for well stream pipelines to ascend an 1800 feet high
underwater cliff created by the massive Storegga Landslide 7,000 years
Danger of Commercial Drilling of Methane Fields, Seafloor
Destabilization, and Tsunamis
Before Norsk Hydro began its commercial production of methane gas, it
obtained expert risk analysis of the probability that drilling and
removing methane gas would destabilize the seafloor, cause more
landslides, and huge tsunamis. The experts concluded that this would not
1. US Department of Energy and Office of Fossil
Energy: “A Strategy for Methane Hydrates Research and Development,” p.
November 26, 2005.
2. Ibid, p. 1.
3. University of Wisconsin: “Chemical of the Week:
November 26, 2005.
4. The Tsunami Initiative: “Tsunami Risk in the
Northeast Atlantic: The Storegga Slides.” At:
November 26, 2005.
5. Dan Evans: The BGS deep-two boomer meets the
Storegga Slide” in The Edinburgh Geologist, Issue no. 28, Autumn 1995,
http://www.edinburghgeolsoc.org/z_28_04.html; accessed November 26,
6. JP Foucher: “Fluid Escape Structures on the
Storegga Slope.” Geophysical Research Abstracts. European Geophysical
Society, 2002. Available at:
November 26, 2005.
7. “Hydro” website: “Boiling tea with gas from chilly
November 26, 2005.
Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters
Energy companies used to avoid methane hydrates no matter what. Now the
industry may be drilling right into danger.
Wed May 12, 2010 07:00 AM ET
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- BP, Transocean and Halliburton are placing the blame for the
disaster on each other.
- The rush to produce more oil has led companies to take more
risks, including drilling in areas with methane hydrates.
- Methane hydrates could make the seafloor unstable, or turn
into methane gas and ignite the rig.
The blame-game has reached hurricane force.
On Capitol Hill, executives from BP, Transocean and Halliburton are
pointing fingers at each other, while in Louisiana, Coast Guard
officials are grilling lower-level managers from the same companies. But
the rush to figure out went went wrong from an engineering perspective
misses the bigger picture, experts say.
WIDE ANGLE: Get all the latest news and information about the massive
oil spill threatening wetlands and wildlife on the Gulf Coast.
The decision by BP and many other energy companies to drill through
areas of unusual ice-like crystals -- called methane hydrates -- is a
risky one fraught with huge consequences for failure.
"Methane hydrates are a geological hazard, and it's been well
established for decades that they are dangerous," said Richard Charter,
head of the Defenders of Wildlife marine program and member of the
Department of Energy's methane hydrates advisory panel. "Until 10 or 15
years ago, the industry would avoid them no matter what."
Now, Charter said, the rush to produce more oil for domestic
consumption has forced companies like BP to take bigger risks by
drilling in deep waters that are a breeding ground of hydrates. And they
worry that a new drilling push into the Arctic Ocean -- which President
Barack Obama has authorized to begin next month -- could expose a
fragile and remote environment to additional risks from catastrophic oil
Methane hydrates only exist in cold water -- just above or below
freezing -- and at the undersea pressures found in deep water off the
continental shelf. "It's a lot like ice," said William Dillon, a retired
marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Mass.
"The conditions that form them exist at the seafloor and in the
This slushy mixture of sea water and methane gas makes drilling more
complicated. For one, the presence of methane hydrates in sediment makes
the seafloor unstable. That's why BP was using a high-tech drilling rig
that was positioned like a helicopter on the surface.
And if hydrates are warmed by oil moving through pipes, they can turn
into methane gas (known as "kicks" to drillers) that can shoot back up
the drilling pipe and ignite the rig. Investigators are already focused
on that scenario as a possible cause of the blast aboard the Deepwater
Horizon rig on April 20.
Several marine geologists told Discovery News that the location of
methane hydrate fields are well-mapped by petroleum companies and the
Minerals Management Service, which regulates the industry. Researchers
aboard scientific drilling ships say they avoid methane hydrate fields
because of the inherent risks.
In 2003, Unocal abandoned plans to drill in the deep water off
Indonesia for the same reason. China has delayed plans for offshore oil
development after finding large hydrate fields, but many industry
officials say they can engineer proper safeguards.
Arthur Johnson heads up Hydrate Energy International, a firm
dedicated to exploiting the potential energy source of hydrates based in
Kenner, La. He doesn't believe that they caused the blast.
"Based on everything I've seen, there's no way naturally-occurring
hydrates had anything to do with loss of the well," Johnson said.
Methane hydrates only exist 3,000 to 5,000 feet below the seafloor,
Johnson said. The BP drill went down to 18,000 feet.
Robert Bea, a civil engineering professor at the University of
California, Berkeley, and oil industry consultant, disagrees. He's been
interviewing workers who were aboard the rig before it blew and said the
BP platform shut down several weeks before the accident because of
"Whether it was either methane hydrate or gas, it doesn't really make
a difference," Bea said. "It has unanticipated, undesirable effects.
Based on my interviews and investigation, (methane) hydrate seeped into
Bea and others say the industry's drilling and spill cleanup
technology hasn't caught up with the economic imperative to produce more
In June, Shell Oil plans a series of exploratory wells in the
Beaufort and Chukchi Seas north of Alaska. That region is remote and
lacks the kind of spill gear that is being deployed in the Gulf of
Mexico. While the White House has delayed plans for oil drilling off the
coasts of California and Virginia, the Alaska project is still on for
Eric Niiler is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.