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Will methane pouring from ocean floor become a climate bomb?

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Methane is seeping from the ocean floor in the Atlantic, making some people to ask if this could result in a "climate bomb," radically changing the environment.

Methane seeps were discovered by researchers studying the eastern seaboard of the United States. They found 570 of the underwater features, located between Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

Gas escaping from the vents has not yet been tested, so it is still uncertain whether or not the greenhouse gas is escaping into the ocean. Still, this is the most likely scenario, according to researchers.

"We don't know of any explanation that fits as well as methane," Adam Skarke, geologist from Mississippi State University and lead author of the study, said.

Methane naturally leaks from ocean floors, particularly around areas rich in petroleum products, or geologically active regions like the California coast. The Atlantic seaboard does not fit either of these descriptions, so climatologists believed little methane would be escaping in the area. Rising temperatures in the ocean could be to blame, although that idea remains untested.

Gas hydrate, also called methane ice, is a mixture of that chemical with water. The substance can remain stable in sediment located at depths of 1,640 feet or deeper. With even a small amount of warming, gas hydrate can release methane, which rises through the substrate, forming vents.

"Some of the seeps we found are similar to those on Arctic Ocean margins, where warming has been more rapid. But we also know that some subsets of the seeps have probably been active for over 1,000 years. A key question is how the long-term seepage and short-term warming of the ocean are related to methane escape," Skarke said.

Methane, temporarily stored as ice under the seabed, likely originated from waste left behind by marine animals. If this turns out to be true, it would mean oil companies will be unable to harvest the methane for use by consumers.

The methane vents are located deep under water, meaning release of the gas should not reach the atmosphere. Instead, the chemical would be absorbed by microorganisms in the water, and transformed into carbon dioxide. This would make surrounding water more acidic, potentially harming most sea life in the area.

Chemosynthetic life-forms are able to feed off methane, producing energy for their biological systems. Biological communicates, comprised of a wide range of species around these vents, will be the subject of future research.

Discovery of the vents along the Atlantic seaboard of the United States was profiled in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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