Methane gas likely spewing into the oceans through vents in sea floor

September 2, 2009

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Scientists worry that rising global temperatures accompanied by melting permafrost in arctic regions will initiate the release of underground methane into the atmosphere. Once released, that methane gas would speed up global warming by trapping the Earth’s heat radiation about 20 times more efficiently than does the better-known greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

An MIT paper appearing in the Journal of Geophysical Research online Aug. 29 elucidates how this underground methane in frozen regions would escape and also concludes that methane trapped under the ocean may already be escaping through vents in the sea floor at a much faster rate than previously believed. Some scientists have associated the release, both gradual and fast, of subsurface ocean methane with climate change of the past and future.

“The sediment conditions under which this mechanism for gas migration dominates, such as when you have a very fine-grained mud, are pervasive in much of the ocean as well as in some permafrost regions,” said lead author Ruben Juanes, the ARCO Assistant Professor in Energy Studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“This indicates that we may be greatly underestimating the methane fluxes presently occurring in the ocean and from underground into Earth’s atmosphere,” said Juanes. “This could have implications for our understanding of the Earth’s carbon cycle and global warming.”

Juanes explains that some of the naturally occurring underground methane exists not as gas but as methane hydrate. In the hydrate phase, a methane gas molecule is l