Researchers from the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at UiT The Arctic University of Norway discovered hundreds more craters than they were searching for underneath the Barents Sea, and found evidence that more methane explosions could happen in the future.
The study led by Professor Karin Andreassen of CAGE revealed at least a hundred kilometer-wide (0.6 miles) craters and several hundred smaller ones littering the Arctic sea floor. All the craters were once methane domes that exploded about 12,000 years ago, but research reveals that at least 600 areas within and outside the craters continue to release methane gas, which poses potential danger in the years to come.
That is not saying methane explosions are just waiting to happen, but the methane trapped underneath the ice could be released if the Earth continues to warm.
Massive Methane Explosions In The Past
As mentioned above, the great methane explosions happened thousands of years ago. The methane gas were actually trapped underneath a thick ice sheet during the last Ice Age and the research model showed that the time of explosions matched the time when the ice sheets began to melt as the climate warmed.
Methane hydrates can withstand immense pressure and extreme cold temperatures, and that is exactly what the situation was during the Ice Age, but the sudden collapse of ice sheets created a way for the methane to be released.
"The principle is the same as in a pressure cooker: if you do not control the release of the pressure, it will continue to build up until there is a disaster in your kitchen," Professor Andreassen said.
— CAGE (@CAGE_COE) June 2, 2017
Danger For Future Explosions
There is a bit of assurance from the researchers since they confirm that sudden methane explosions like the ones they discovered in the Arctic only happens in areas that have a huge underground gas reservoirs.
The good news is that the ones in the study are only seeping moderate amounts of methane gas up to 200 meters above the sea floor, which means that bacteria in the sea are still taking care of disposing the gas. This, however, is not an assurance that it will continue to be safe because the Arctic ice sheets are also retreating in the present time, which means there may still be undiscovered and under pressure methane mounds in the area.
The bad news, however, is that there are more hydrocarbon reserves under the West Antarctica and Arctic ice sheets, and methane gas seeps have been discovered along the Atlantic Coast, and just off the Oregon and Washington Coasts. This means continued global warming could potentially set off explosions when the conditions align.
The second condition — the glacial melt — is already happening.
"The only way you can keep this hydrate that's in the ground is to keep from warming the oceans. The only way you can keep them from warming is to reduce the greenhouses gases in the atmosphere," University of Washington Oceanographer H. Paul Johnson said. Johnson is not involved in the research but has studied methane hydrates along the Pacific Northwest.
If there is any wonder why methane in the atmosphere is bad, just think of how effective the gas is in absorbing heat. More methane in the atmosphere means more heat trapped in Earth, and it will just keep getting hotter and hotter and it could severely affect the ecosystem.