There has certainly been a lot of discussion lately about methane hydrates. You may have missed it unless you, like most concerned about global peak oil and peak energy, specifically search and listen for it. Most of that discussion, quite understandably in our energy-addicted world, has centered on the potential of using these vast reserves of methane as a fuel source. Methane hydrates, after all, contain more carbon energy than all of the world's oil, natural gas and coal combined.
For those not familiar, methane hydrates are molecules of methane gas (the basic constituent of natural gas) locked in a cage of water ice.
They exist in two places throughout the world. Marine methane hydrates exist on most of the world's continental margins, particularly along the subduction zone of tectonic plates such as along the west coast of North America. Methane hydrates also occur in land-based and sub-sea frozen permafrost in Alaska, Northern Canada, Russian Siberia, far northern Europe, and in small deposits in Antarctica.
The sheer volume of methane hydrates and their occurrence on shore in permafrost and near offshore on continental margins do make them an attractive prospect as a future, accessible, post-oil energy source. There has been far more research into the potential exploitation of methane hydrates than was ever the case for oil, natural gas or coal. The requisite geology and, now, the location of these deposits are well known. All that stands in the way of exploiting this vast energy resource - from the point of view of energy executives, economists and politicians - is the extraction technology, the global distribution technology and network, the economic evaluation and the financing to build the massive infrastructure that would be needed to effectively and efficiently exploit it fully. No problem! It may, in fact, still be several decades - in a business as usual climate - before all of these factors can be dealt with and methane from hydrates can be exploited commercially.
There are, of course, other points of view. Paleoclimatologists are increasingly convinced that massive and surprisingly sudden releases of submarine methane hydrates have been responsible for periodic and disastrous rapid rises of global temperature, largely resulting in the quick - in geologic terms - end of past ice ages. The study of deep ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, the study of areas of ocean floor zones of extensive pock marks and growing evidence of current increasing methane releases from melting permafrost and the Arctic Ocean floor all strongly lend credence to this hypothesis.
All of that, of course, makes methane hydrates and their possible release as a gas into the atmosphere a serious concern, in this period of increasing concern about global warming, from an environmental point of view. Methane in the short term, you see, is 62 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Over ten to twenty years time as it oxidizes in the atmosphere it weakens to just 20 times the potency as a GHG compared to carbon dioxide. After about ten years atmospheric methane completely oxidizes. But that isn't the end. It oxidizes into carbon dioxide and remains a greenhouse for another century.
Hundreds of articles, papers and web sites were researched as part of writing this article. I have not listed them here as the list would be far too long. If anyone is interested in those references and links, however, they can contact me by e-mail and I will gladly supply them. My e-mail address is; firstname.lastname@example.org
Methane Hydrates: What are they thinking?