Deep below the crashing waves, the ocean rumbles. Away from the boats, away from the people, away from the species we are familiar with – the ones we eat, the ones we admire on snorkeling trips to coral reefs. Down here, the enormous pressure would blow a human to smithereens in a fraction of a second. Down here, it is dark and vast. But it is not empty – there are creatures we could not even dare to dream of, like 20-foot-long worms and gigantic crabs. There is something else here though, something we are daring to dream of, and something some people want desperately. They are called methane hydrates.
Methane hydrates are, unsurprisingly, composed of methane, a compound that, when released, is a greenhouse gas 20 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.With the recent natural gas boom, not many people were paying attention to methane hydrates as a source of energy. But in the last decade, it has returned to the spotlight. Scientists estimate that there are at least 3,000 gigatons of carbon stored in these giant ice-like blocks of methane hydrate at the bottom of the ocean and at plate boundaries, and in the Arctic permafrost. This is a whopping amount compared to only 230 gigatons of natural gas available worldwide. No wonder the big oil giants, namely companies in Japan, China, India, and the United States are extraordinarily interested in tapping this new resource as energy demands continue to grow.
There’s just one problem: mining methane hydrates would be absolutely devastating for our climate, and therefore the entire planet’s well-being.
Since methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, the concept of burning up thousands of gigatons of this stuff, releasing an ungodly amount of it into the atmosphere, is just mind-boggling. And that assumes that you’re able to actually get your hands on it. Methane hydrates are located in some of the most hard-to-access places on the globe: the deep ocean and the middle of the Arctic. Actually extracting methane hydrates would be unimaginably expensive, requiring long boat trips out to the middle of the ocean and innovative technologies to reach the deposits. Since the hydrates are solids, they can’t be sucked up a pipe: the only two ways to transport them are to bite off a chunk and physically carry it to the ocean’s surface, or to sublimate them (turn them from a solid straight to a gas) using a special machine and then bring them to the surface. Working in these volatile environments, using an extraordinarily difficult process, brings up many concerns for degradation of equipment, safety of workers, and local environmental damage.
This process of extraction poses many more risks to our global climate that is already in trouble. If, in the process of extraction, some of the methane is leaked to the surrounding ocean, it will have an enormous impact on the ocean and the atmosphere. When methane changes from solid to gas form, it expands in volume: one cubic meter of solid methane hydrate converts to 164 cubic meters of methane gas. In the ocean, methane gas eats up all the oxygen in the local area, causing death of most species in that region. When the gas reaches the air, it acts as a greenhouse gas, contributing to the warming of the planet. This is not a potential effect – scientists know that this has happened before, in which the release of a large amount of methane hydrates on the sea floor led to mass extinctions around the globe through ocean anoxia and rapid global warming.
In such harsh environments, using expensive and dangerous technologies, it’s hard to prevent this kind of thing from happening. In my opinion, it’s best to leave methane hydrates alone and turn our attention towards energy technologies that we know will not pose a threat to our climate: wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal. But even if we don’t touch methane hydrates, we might still be in trouble. Our climate is warming rapidly, and these methane deposits don’t exist in a vacuum. The worry is that some methane might be released anyway.
Let me explain: these methane hydrates are held in place at the bottom of the ocean because of the extreme pressure that exists there. Pressure is affected by both temperature and sea level. If the temperature of the ocean increases, that lets up on the pressure, releasing some methane hydrate. If the sea level drops, that has the same effect. With global and ocean temperatures rising, which would release some of the methane, and sea levels rising due to the melting of the icebergs, which would increase the pressure on the methane, we’re not really sure what will happen. Will increasing temperatures outweigh rising sea levels? Or vice versa? What we do know is that there is a lot of methane hydrates in the world – probably a lot more than scientists have estimated – and they are very volatile. And if they’re released, it means bad news for the planet – not only biological and chemical impacts, but methane hydrates can also cause underwater landslides and tsunamis if a large amount is released.
It makes me pretty distressed to know that our climate is in really bad shape right now, and there are still so many people out there looking to make a profit and find these new, extremely dangerous sources of technology that would make our climate a whole lot more inhospitable. But I also have to remember that there are so many people out there that are doing the right thing: investing in renewables, developing clean technologies, and moving us towards a better world.