Researchers have found more than 500 methane vents on the seafloor off the Atlantic coast of the United States. The sheer number of these so-called “seep areas” has taken scientists by surprise—before this new research, surveys had found just three similar seeps in the region. The BBC reports:
Previous surveys along the Atlantic seaboard have shown only three seep areas beyond the edge of the US continental shelf.
In an area between North Carolina and Massachusetts, they have now found at least 570 seeps at varying depths between 50m and 1,700m. [...] The scientists say there could be about 30,000 of these hidden methane vents worldwide.
“The methane is dissolving into the ocean at depths of hundreds of metres and being oxidised to CO2,” said [Prof Adam Skarke from Mississippi State University, who led the study]. “But it is important to say we simply don’t have any evidence in this paper to suggest that any carbon coming from these seeps is entering the atmosphere.”
Many of these vents are pumping out methane at depths which are conducive to the formation of methane hydrates, also called fire ice. In this form, the gas is trapped in a lattice of ice, though it can be released if heated or brought up to the surface. In fact, there’s a nascent industry emerging intent on bringing fire ice out of the water to do just that: unlock the methane within to be harnessed as an energy source. These new findings off the eastern U.S. coast could attract some of those firms’ attention. The study’s lead author Professor Adam Skarke cautioned that “[t]here is no evidence to say that these clathrates are related to conventional gas reservoirs, so there is no evidence to say they are a recoverable resource,” but as fracking has shown, new technologies can make energy booms out of unconventional resources.
Putting that question aside, the discovery of these underwater methane seeps underscores just how little we understand about our climate. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and while the study didn’t find any indication that these leaks were finding their way into our planet’s atmosphere, that remains a key concern. Yes, our climate is changing, and yes, humans are playing a big part in that change, but time and time again we’re reminded of how little we know beyond those basic facts.