For the first time, scientists have discovered a massive release of methane from gas hydrate seafloor sediments in the South Atlantic in the Southern Hemisphere.

Gas Hydrates

Gas hydrates are icy substances that have been formed by methane and water hundreds of meters below the surface. Here, shallow temperatures and very high pressure cause the gas hydrates to freeze into sediments.

The methane gas contained in these hydrate sediments is now starting to leak via dissociation.

As a greenhouse gas, methane has about 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate that the methane trapped in these frozen sediments is the largest organic carbon reservoir on the planet. Now that they are leaking, they could exacerbate climate change and global warming.

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The Contribution of Methane to Global Warming

According to Linnaeus University environmental science professor Marcelo Ketzer, scientists have estimated that more organic carbon in methane form exists on earth in gas hydrates compared to the entire amount of fossil fuels worldwide.

Methane leakage can cause a positive feedback loop where the warming oceans melt the gas hydrates, which results in methane being released into the open water. The methane then contributes to carbon emissions, which would cause faster warming of the planet. This increase in warming causes even more melting of the gas hydrates, which leaks even more methane.

Scientists believe that this positive feedback loop in our planet's geological past triggered and amplified climatic changes.

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The Study

A multinational research team sampled the gas hydrate sediments using unmanned sub-marine equipment. They determined through these methods that the leaking of methane is currently happening in the area.  

The samples of the gas hydrates were collected off the coast of South America. The team made three field samplings in the area from 2011 to 2014. They then transported the specimens to the university laboratory for analysis.

The scientists then concluded that methane leaks are happening all over the world. Furthermore, when methane is leaked into the water, it dissolves, with some of it being consumed by microorganisms, thus forming carbon dioxide. Such a process may alter the oceans' chemistry in massive quantities, causing numerous effects such as increased water acidification.

According to Ketzer, the dissociation of the hydrate and the methane leak can go on for many centuries, leading to significant amplification of global warming.

A Parallel Study in the Baltic

The research team also conducted another offshore expedition to investigate methane accumulation in the Baltic Sea. Ketzer's team concluded that no gas hydrates occur in this area because of its shallow waters. However, the team still found significant methane quantities trapped in the sediments.

Future Research

Ketzer says that they are working with their data to better understand the amount of methane present in the South Atlantic region and possible future methane release from further hydrate dissociation.

Suppose the massive release of methane continues from the gas hydrate sediments in the South Atlantic and other oceans of the world, both in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. In that case, this could be another contributor exacerbating climate change.

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