Fire and ice: will methane hydrates be the future of energy or bring on the next apocalypse?

Above: Methane hydrate, recovered during the USGS gas hydrate research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico in 2002. (Courtesy USGS)

While the shale gas boom is rewriting today’s energy landscape the next big challenge is starting to emerge; will methane hydrates be the future of civilisation or bring about its end?
At the bottom of our oceans and buried deep beneath permafrost surrounding the arctic circle is a vast store of methane – a natural gas produced by the anaerobic decomposition of millions of years of organic matter. Estimates vary but even conservative figures suggest there may be over a thousand gigatonnes of methane precariously stored as ice crystals under high pressure and low temperature. Alarmingly, this store of methane is relatively unstable, like regular water ice, if it is disturbed it will float out of the sediment that holds it, and if permafrost temperatures rise (as predicted with global warming) the crystals will thaw, releasing methane directly to the atmosphere.  As is well known, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, 20 times more potent than CO2 on a weight-for-weight basis.  

The good news is that seafloor methane rarely survives the trip to the ocean surface, but the CO2 produced by its degradation and the methane that may be released from permafrost and the continental margins is sufficient to cause a catastrophe unseen since the dinosaurs.


Sinkholes like this one in a Siberian mining town may be releasing massive quantities of methane. (Image: courtesy of Mashable)

Recent images of holes opening up in the Siberian permafrost, methane plumes emerging from the seafloor and the almost inestimable cost of methane hydrate release are generating serious concern.

While the risks from methane hydrates are high, so are the opportunities. Natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel compared with coal and oil, and ground-breaking research in Korea may lead to a way for us to access the trapped methane for energy and replace it with CO2 as a way of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it - a ‘win-win’ solution for energy and climate change.  A number of our Cleanleap countries are also getting in on the act and have discovered massive reserves of seabed methane hydrates.

Next: How about the glass half-full scenario? Read on for the secret of "fire ice".