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POWER OF THE DEEP

Beneath the waters of the area of ocean known as the Bermuda Triangle is an ancient immensely powerful source of energy. But before anyone thinks science fiction has suffered a bad attack of new age nonsense, lets get things straight. The energy source is methane gas, and there are no alien spaceships or suburbs of Atlantis here.

The myth of the Bermuda Triangle as the site of mysterious disappearances and strange events has generated millions of profitable words for the Aliens-Ate-my-Hamster school of writers, not at least Charles Berlitz whose book on the subject has sold nearly 20 million copies in 30 different languages since 1974. Of course, ships can disappear suddenly, oceans can boil and instruments go haywire. But scientists now have an explanation for these phenomena, and the cause is chemical rather than extraterrestrial. It goes by the name methane gas hydrate, and though it doesn’t have quite the same ring as Atlantis, it is strange stuff.

All gases except hydrogen, helium and neon are now known to be able to form compounds called as hydrates in association with water if enough gas and water are present, the temperature is cold enough, the pressure is high enough. Joseph priestly, the British discoverer of oxygen, is believed to have produced oxygen hydrate sometime in 1780s, while chlorine hydrate was produced by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1810. It was the discovery by Soviet workers of a strange “fizzing ice” blocking up their natural gas pipes un 1928- and its identification six years later by the American chemist E G Hammerschmidt as a hydrate of methane – that began the trail leading towards the Bermuda Triangle.

Methane Hydrate is methane that has been entombed inside an icy crystalline cage of water molecules, a chemical jail into which large amounts of gas have been squeezed by high pressure and cold. In case of Methane one litre of the hydrate that had formed in the chilly gas pipes of Kazakhstan in the 1920s amounted to 167 litres of spongy gas and a puddle of water when it made its energetic expansion to normal atmospheric pressure after removal from the icy ground. One place where temperature and pressure conditions are right for methane hydrate to form is permafrost. Another, reasoned the experts, should be the seafloor sediments in water several hundred metres deep, where the pressure and temperatures are also right for methane- created by decomposing organic debris – to wind up locked into the jailhouse of methane hydrate.

Experts found what they were after in the early 1970s when the fizzing ice that had caused consternation in Kazakhstan turned up again in test cores drilled through the ocean floor in (spooky this) the Bermuda triangle. Around the same time, oceanographers realized that strange sonar readings of the seabed floor, which seemed to show a phantom seafloor several hundred metres beneath the real one, were also an indication of gas hydrate layers.

Global surveys have now found these signals (Called the “Bottom simulating reflector” or BSR) along continental slopes all over the world, a fact explaining less well-publicized tales of Bermuda Triangle style weirdness from places as far apart as the Caspian Sea and Japan. What the geographical spread of seafloor hydrate also represents is a huge storehouse of methane gas waiting to be freed from its prison cell and put to use.

But, as with any jailbreak, there are risks involved. With methane hydrate, an uncontrolled release is asking for trouble. In fact, gas-industry experts were already familiar with the dramatic effects of methane gas blowouts when ocean drilling went wrong, but it was not until 1981 that geochemist Richard McIver went public on a link with the Bermuda Triangle myth.

There are many dangers in a methane gas blowout. One is its effect on water itself. To a ship at sea, water is a changeable medium, where buoyancy depends on things like salinity and temperature. For example, warm freshwater is less dense than cold saltwater, so a ship would float lower sailing up a warm river than on the Atlantic.

So Imagine what would happen if an ocean floor methane gas pocket was ruptured. A vast reservoir of gas would suddenly surge form the seabed, rising up in a giant plume through the ocean before erupting on the surface without warning.

A ship caught in such a blowout would be doomed. The water beneath it would suddenly become much dense due to the gas, sinking it in a matter of moments – the fate of over 40 rigs lost to gasified water worldwide. The vessel would plunge into the depths, where it would plunge into the depths, where it would be covered up as sediment disturbed by the blowout settled back on the seabed. Another supernatural disappearance or just another natural disaster?

Planes, too, could fall prey to the deadly blowout. A plume of methane gas would continue to rise once it had reached the ocean surface since methane is lighter than air, and any aircraft flying into this invisible zone of danger would face two hazards. If the methane were very concentrated, its engines would fail due to lack of oxygen. A more likely disaster, however, would result if the plume mixture was between 5 to 15 percent methane. Such a mixture is explosive and not the place you want to be with hot engine exhausts.

McIver’s theory depends on there being something to cause the gas blowouts, since the Bermuda Triangle isn’t yet an area of heavy gas drilling. Nature, however, offers a solution in the form of underwater landslides, and McIver’s proof came from an unexpected source when he discovered that telephone companies had long suffered cable breakages all along the North American continental shelf. Sonar surveys have now shown the vast majority of breakages occur at the site of seafloor landslides. Such slumps can be massive – one was 40 miles wide – and would easily rupture gas hydrate layers beneath the seafloor, freeing the gas trapped beneath the hydrate “cap” as well as liberating massive amounts of methane trapped within the hydrate itself, which would break open as the pressure changed.

But a substance that is bad news for any ship or plane passing at the wrong moment also offers an amazing solution to the energy demands of the next century. Hydrates store immense amounts of methane; not counting the methane natural gas that exists in conventional form beneath the hydrate layers themselves. Remember, one helping of methane in its pressurized hydrate form is equivalent to 167 helpings of free methane. The US Geological Survey has estimated that just two relatively small areas of the North and South Carolina coast (part of the Bermuda Triangle) contain over 70 times the annual gas consumption of the US, while putting 16 noughts after a two gives you an idea of the current global estimate for cubic metres of methane gas locked in hydrates.

“The present oil-based economy may well be replaced by a natural gas-based one as early as the first or second decade of the next century”, says Peter Miles of the Southampton Oceanography Center. “Just one percent of the most conservative estimate of gas hydrates is equivalent the half the current proven natural gas reserves.”

Methane gas, says Miles, is the last remaining hydrocarbons waiting to be exploited, and leading industrial nations are already setting up both ocean and permafrost drilling projects to do so. The news may not be all good, though. The fact that methane hydrates are only stable under narrow temperature and pressure conditions makes them especially vulnerable to climate change. Some experts believe that global warming – which is expected to be most pronounced in Polar Regions – could trigger the catastrophic decay of shallow gas hydrates within the permafrost. Since methane is green house gas, this leads to more global warming, causing more hydrate decay, and the start of a nasty climatic cycle.

Its volatility means the number of people who have actually seen the methane gas hydrate in its fizzing state is tiny. Yet its presence is likely to loom over the early decades of the next century, a powerful force that may give us energy to burn or burn us up instead.

 

(Norman Miller

The Sunday Times, London)

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