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Methane hydrate release

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  • Mike Doran
    Large natural release of methane in the Beaufort Sea reported in the National Post, Canada. ... Methane gushes from sea floor Ominous eruptions: Huge gap in
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 8, 2006
      Large natural release of methane in the Beaufort Sea reported in the
      National Post, Canada.


      Methane gushes from sea floor
      Ominous eruptions: 'Huge gap in our understanding,' scientist warns

      Margaret Munro
      CanWest News Service

      Wednesday, March 08, 2006

      Scott Dallimore is not about to push the panic button. But the
      federal permafrost specialist says methane, one of the most potent
      gases associated with global warming, is bubbling out of mud
      volcanoes on the floor of the Beaufort Sea.

      He and his colleagues at the Geological Survey of Canada have been
      sizing them up from ships. They have sent down remotely operated
      vehicles for a closer look. And they have been peering into holes in
      the sea ice created as the gas bubbles to the surface.

      "They are fantastic things," Mr. Dallimore says of the "pingo-like
      features," or mud volcanoes, that are one of the wilder cards in the
      global warming equation.

      Along with the methane bubbling out of the metres-high mounds on the
      sea floor, Mr. Dallimore says the gas is seeping out of permafrost in
      some areas. Scientists do not know how much gas is being released, if
      the rate of release is increasing or what the impact will be on the

      "It is a huge gap in our scientific understanding," says Mr.
      Dallimore, echoing international reports that point to escaping
      methane as one of the ominous unknowns associated with the profound
      change underway at the top of the planet.

      While there may still be debate about the cause of the change, there
      is little doubt the Arctic is being radically redefined. And leading
      researchers say it is time to get serious about not only reducing
      pollution linked to the warming, but to filling in the important
      blanks in knowledge and figuring out how to adapt to the change.

      Polar ice has been shrinking at a rate of about 74,000 square
      kilometres annually for the last 30 years, according to David Barber,
      an ice specialist at the University of Manitoba. That means enough
      ice to cover Lake Superior vanishes each year.

      Mr. Barber predicts the fabled Northwest Passage could be open for
      summer shipping within decades. The Arctic ice is withdrawing so
      fast, he and some of his colleagues predict that by 2050 it may be
      non-existent in summer. "It could be as early as 2020, or it could be
      2050," Mr. Barber says. "This is not an insignificant thing, this is
      a very major change in how the Arctic system functions. We're talking
      about a change over 50 years, 80 years at the outside, which we
      haven't seen on the planet Earth for at least a million years. This
      is very rapid."

      Greenland's ice sheet is also on the move, sliding into the sea at
      about 12 kilometres a year, dumping icebergs and meltwater at twice
      the rate it did a decade ago. "In the next 10 years, it wouldn't
      surprise me if the rate doubled again," Eric Rignot of NASA's Jet
      Propulsion Laboratory said after publishing the findings in the
      journal Science last month.

      Low-lying coastal communities are already feeling the impact of
      increased wave action and erosion that comes with more open water and
      some may have to relocate to more solid ground. Building foundations
      and airport runways are buckling as permafrost melts, prompting civil
      engineers in Nunavut and Northern Quebec to start drawing up
      remediation plans.

      But there is little anyone can do for the animals and other life
      forms that will be stranded as temperatures climb and the Arctic's
      icy cloak lifts.

      "If you live on the sea ice like the polar bear, you are in big
      trouble -- your habitat is disappearing," says biologist John Smol of
      Queen's University, who is documenting the transformation underway in
      freshwater lakes in Nunavut.

      He, like many Arctic researchers, stresses the need for the public
      and politicians to wake up to the profound nature of the change.

      "People have still not caught on to how serious it is," says Mr.
      Smol, the current holder of the country's top science prize: the
      Herzberg gold medal. "I believe climactic warming is by far the most
      serious issue we should be thinking about, over terrorism and over
      all the other things that make headlines."

      Some see benefits to the receding ice, such as summer shipping and
      easier access to Arctic riches of oil, gas, minerals and diamonds.

      But Mr. Smol and Mr. Barber caution that any opportunities -- "and I
      hesitate to call them opportunities," says Mr. Smol -- will be offset
      by challenges.

      Salmon showing up in the Arctic waters might lead to new fisheries,
      but other species will be displaced. Increased shipping is sure to be
      associated with accidents. And while permafrost is expected to give
      way to more forest and agriculture, the big melt could create havoc
      for pipelines, runways and roads designed to sit on, or in, frozen

      Then there is the vast store of carbon and frozen methane gas, known
      as gas hydrates, that have been locked in permafrost and Arctic
      seabeds for millennia.

      Energy companies and scientists like Mr. Dallimore are exploring the
      possibility of exploiting the frozen gas hydrates as a new source of
      energy. But there is concern hydrates may escape as temperatures rise
      and permafrost melts.

      Methane is 20 times more efficient as a greenhouse gas than the
      carbon dioxide that is produced by burning fossil fuels and
      associated with global warming.

      No one knows how much of the Arctic gas will escape as temperatures
      rise. Mr. Dallimore and his colleagues hope to get a better read on
      the potential threat as part of a project -- planned for the
      International Polar Year in 2007-8 -- to assess the methane bubbling
      out of the sea and ground in Canada's North.

      "Whether the gas is from degrading permafrost or whether it is from
      deep gas hydrates, we don't know at this point," Mr. Dallimore
      says. "But we need to find out."

      © National Post 2006
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