Monday, April 20, 2009

Massive Marine Methane Hydrate Destabilization/Release a Potential Major Positive Feedback Mechanism in Accelerating Global Warming

First, a few words about the denial industry

Perhaps the favorite argument of those anxious to take society down a dangerous path - such as that of exploiting a new energy resource like methane hydrates - when there is opposition to that intent out of concern of the risk and danger involved, is to demand that those opposed to their actions prove the alleged danger.

It is an argument that has been increasingly supported by politicians hoping to keep the wheels on the growth-dependent global economy and others who stand to gain from the actions being debated. The growth on which their power depends derives from energy, lots of it.

It seems that invariably the approach favoured by those in power is to let the debated actions continue until that proof of danger is produced, hoping that such proof will not materialize. But almost invariably the satisfactory proof demanded is extremely illusive and in the time it takes to produce that proof an extraordinary amount of damage has already been achieved. All too often the society is already far too advanced down the path to dependence on that resource that the ultimate decision is to carry on, that the risk is deemed manageable, minor and acceptable relative to the perceived benefits being achieved.

While that proof is being developed, and even after it has been presented and supported by countless experts, the tactics of denial, misinformation and disinformation not only continue but accelerate. Whenever any minor point of contention can be created, when any minute error of detail in the proof can be found, it is vigorously put forward as proof that the entire proof is invalid. For every thousand experts endorsing the proof a small number of often highly-paid industry shills are put forward to claim that the debate is not over, that the research is not conclusive, that the proof is incomplete and full of holes, and that the proof should not be allowed to stand in the way of progress.

The concept of using risk, doubt and uncertainty as a need for caution seems to be lost in favor of recklessly proceeding. The logic of demanding proof of safety rather than proof of danger is ignored.

This is the tactic that has been used in industry opposition to the climate change argument. The amount of time and money having to be expended/wasted on the inevitable proof because of this industry opposition and campaign of disinformation is almost enough, and is intended, to dissuade those working on that proof from even bothering. Fortunately, for society, they are not dissuaded.

Any potential crisis that could possibly block or slow economic progress is deemed less a problem than the economic crisis that a more cautious approach could bring about. There is no long term view and no environmental or societal conscience when it comes to economics. There is only the short term profit motive which trumps all other considerations.

Now back to our scheduled programming

There is growing debate today, as the reality of diminishing global oil reserves sinks in, about methane hydrates as a potential energy source and the potential global risks and dangers in their exploitation. The optimism is rapidly waning that economical carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology will be developed to allow the use of coal to be cleaned up to a level that will alleviate global warming. Governments and energy industries throughout the world are increasingly looking at methane as the next great energy source. After all, there is estimated to be more carbon locked up in methane hydrates than in all of the other fossil fuels combined, enough to power human society, according to the optimists, through to the end of this millennium.

But the risks inherent in the exploitation of methane from hydrates are very, very real and every effort must be made to push awareness of those risks out into the public arena to help prevent us from blindly following self-appointed, self-interested leaders down a path rife with dangers that have been vigorously and intentionally kept from public view with a campaign of denial, misinformation and disinformation.

Again I digress

Before I go any further it is, I believe, important to clarify something. I am not suggesting for a moment that those in government or the individuals in corporations like energy companies are setting out to intentionally destroy the world or even to do damage to society. Most of those individuals are probably basically good people who believe that they are doing the best that they can for their companies, their countries, for humanity. I believe strongly that the basic problem is the nature of the corporation and other institutions like government.

Both are created by people but once created the people within those institutions must follow the tunnel-visioned objectives of the institution regardless of their personal beliefs or sense of ethics and morality.

Corporations are, legally at least, artificial people, like computers in a sense. But neither corporations nor computers by their nature have the essential elements that define humanness. They have no soul, no ethics, no morality. They have specified objectives laid out for them by their people and do not allow human fallibility to get in the way of pursuing and, if possible, achieving those single-minded objectives. Failure to do so will see a person removed and replaced by someone who will get with the program.

Institutions and corporations differ from real people in another important respect. They potentially have an existence, a life, well in excess of the lifespan of their human components. The parts are easily replaced without significantly altering the whole.

Back on Track

What are Methane Hydrates? Most methane in the world is a gas - like natural gas and similarly usable as an energy source - formed from organic matter broken down by bacteria. Methane hydrates are molecules of methane gas trapped in a water-ice cage. The hydrate reserves occur, primarily in the oceans along continental shelf margins, and in Arctic permafrost. Methane is also released, in gaseous form, from swamps, peat bogs, shallow lakes and by various animals like ruminants (e.g. cattle, buffalo, water buffalo). There is some small-scale commercial production of methane gas, in Denmark for example, using animal manure in huge methane digesters that use natural bacteria to break down the organic matter and produce the gas which is drawn off and used like natural gas.

Methane hydrates were little studied and only poorly understood before the last three decades. Even now full understanding is still potentially decades away. Although debated, many experts and scientists believe there may be more carbon energy locked up in marine and permafrost methane hydrates than in all of the oil, natural gas and coal in the world combined. That makes them a very attractive potential energy source as world reserves of those three fossil fuels decline. That potential as an energy source is, in fact, the primary financial driver to the study of methane hydrates.

But there are a few important points about methane hydrates that raise red flags and strongly suggest that we proceed with caution in any intent to exploit them for energy.

  • Methane hydrates are pockets of methane trapped in a cage of water ice. They occur where they do because they require very specific conditions of temperature and pressure to be stable. Raise the temperature and/or lower the pressure and the molecules break down and release the methane gas.
  • The methane in the hydrates is held at a density 160 times that of methane in the atmosphere, meaning as it escapes from the hydrate it expands 160 times.
  • Methane in the atmosphere is more than 60 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). It is, however, much shorter lived. It oxidizes fairly quickly in the atmosphere. But it oxidizes to CO2 which is much more stable and much longer lived than the methane itself.
  • The temperature at which methane hydrates are stable is not the densest form of water ice. That means that methane hydrate molecules are always subject to two opposing pressures as they warm; the ice forming the cage wants to contract and the methane inside the cage wants to expand. That makes the stability zone in which methane hydrates can exist very narrow and unstable with the slightest changes in temperature and pressure.
  • Below the bottom of the hydrate stability zone (HSZ) there is generally more methane but without the hydrates, in gaseous form trapped in the pores of sediment and capped or held in place by the methane hydrates above. Disrupting the cap of methane hydrates, therefore, runs the risk of massive releases of methane not just from the hydrates but of the gaseous methane below the hydrates.
  • There have been numerous accidental releases of methane hydrates in the past fifty years in connection with deep sea oil and gas drilling operations (methane hydrates often occur in conjunction with oil and natural gas deposits), extraction platform seabed anchoring, dredging operations, undersea landslides triggered by volcanoes and earthquakes, shifts in undersea temperatures with changes in ocean currents, in the Arctic as sea temperatures rise, and more.
  • The risk of accidental releases of the methane gas increases dramatically when we begin to work directly on methane hydrate reserves. Certain suggested methods of methane hydrate exploitation represent very great risks. One of these is sonic destabilization of the methane hydrates which has the potential of destabilizing large sections of the reserves, not just the segment being focused on.
  • Most methane hydrates in both undersea reserves and in Arctic permafrost are loosely dispersed and not sufficiently concentrated to allow economical recovery for use as energy.
    Most sub sea methane hydrate deposits occur on the downslope edge of continental shelves.
  • The risk of massive landslides occurring - potentially resulting in tsunamis - from a large release of methane gas is, therefore, quite high. There is considerable and growing geological evidence that this has occurred several times in earth's past, often in the warming periods at the end of ice ages.

And that is potentially the greatest concern with methane hydrates, whether or not we attempt to exploit them as an energy resource. Scientific studies in the Arctic have already shown that methane venting from the ocean floor is increasing as the temperature of Arctic waters climbs. And Arctic temperature rise is much more rapid, and will continue to be so, than in the tropics as global warming proceeds.

That release of methane as global warming proceeds sets up a powerful positive feedback mechanism that accelerates the warming. Geological science has shown that methane did not initiate the end of ice ages but accelerated the process. We are in a period of overall global warming. I will leave aside the question of whether that is caused by man or by a change in the sunspot cycle. It is irrelevant. A two degree Celsius rise in average global temperature is more than enough to trigger massive methane hydrate releases. That same two degree rise anywhere, such as in the Arctic, threatens release of the hydrate reserves in that area. The temperature rise in Arctic waters is already heralding the beginning of the acceleration of Arctic methane hydrate releases. Potential changes in the course or temperature of the Atlantic thermal currents could also threaten major methane hydrate reserves along the east coast continental shelf of North America from the Caribbean to the Arctic.

I'm certain that those in favor of progress at any price, those in the energy industry, the denial lobby surrounding governments everywhere, will be able to find small errors in my argument to declare them null and void. That, after all, is their job. Don't let them fool you. The risks to our planet and our global human society are high enough to demand that they prove their case.


The following can offer some additional reading and were used as source material for some of the newer components of my argument.

1) Could changing ocean circulation have destabilized methane hydrate at the Paleocene/Eocene boundary?
2) Methane Hydrate and Abrupt Climate Change
4) Methane hydrate destabilization as a result of anthropogenic warming
5) Global Climate Destabilization is Major Security & Economic Threat
6) Methane Hydrates Research
7) Methane seeps,methane hydrate destabilization,and the late Neoproterozoic postglacial cap carbonates
8) Methane Hydrates Issues and Opportunities
9) Methane hydrates in the sea floor
10) Could Methane Trigger a Climate Doomsday Within a Human Lifespan?

1 comment:

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