Hundreds of Methane Plumes Erupting Along East Coast

Aug 25, 2014

By Becky Oskin


In an unexpected discovery, hundreds of gas plumes bubbling up from the seafloor were spotted during a sweeping survey of the U.S. Atlantic Coast.

Even though ocean explorers have yet to test the gas, the bubbles are almost certainlymethane, researchers report today (Aug. 24) in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“We don’t know of any explanation that fits as well as methane,” said lead study author Adam Skarke, a geologist at Mississippi State University in Mississippi State.

Surprising seeps

Between North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras and Massachusetts’ Georges Bank, 570 methane seeps cluster in about eight regions, according to sonar and video gathered by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration ship Okeanos Explorer between 2011 and 2013. The vast majority of the seeps dot the continental slope break, where the seafloor topography swoops down toward the Atlantic Ocean basin.

11 comments on “Hundreds of Methane Plumes Erupting Along East Coast

  • I don’t quite understand why this is thought to be “an unexpected discovery”.

    Any scientist who’s discipline has a bearing on climate should be capable of forecasting this occurrence.

    This could be a tipping point and the beginning of a very hazardous period indeed on this planet, when billions of years of methane deposits from rotting material start rising from the deep ocean beds to the surface due to raised temperatures.

    If so, it’s time to stop yapping about climate chaos conspiracies and start getting our act together.

    This is scary stuff and I hope I’m wrong.

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  • A quick point, or two. Those are tiny little bubbles, right? Wrong! Those are tiny only because they are hugely compressed by the massive pressures at the sea bed. By the time they ascend to the surface, and the atmosphere, they will be great BIG bubbles!

    Next, the article does not make it clear whether these are thought to be newly released, or simply newly discovered. I suspect the latter, because despite the ammount of heat that the oceans are soaking up, temperatures at the ocean floor have not increased sufficiently (yet!) to cause a new, or increased, release of methane.

    The recent Siberian methane release and associated crater, is of course, related to warming in the area. I am not sure that the oceanic release can be accredited to global warming, despite its being a causative factor in further warming.

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  • I seem to remember seeing an article on the Bermuda Triangle, where the author suggested a massive leak of such bubbles would destroy the flotation effect of a good sized ship, causing it to sink below the waves, and fill with water.

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  • Probably not really, and the whole “Bermuda Triangle” thing belongs in the pseudo science section. Breaking waves, big waves will aerate in foam pockets referred to by ocean sailing yachts as “pot holes.”

    While you try to avoid these, as you slide down the face of a wave, sometimes, especially at night, you run straight into one, and I have been on the helm, and up to my arm pits in foam in consequence, but not sunk. That was in pretty extreme weather and aboard a racing yacht.

    It is difficult to imagine a circumstance or a gas release that would compromise a large vessel.

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  • That sentiment, unless you were being sarcastic, which is highly possible, puts you amongst those who oppose widespread scientific and popular (outside the USA) consensus on this issue… If you are right, little will happen. If you are wrong, you are either ignoring data that is painting a very clear picture indicating that humans are indeed affecting global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases, indicating that action needs to be taken immediately (we may be too late to avoid serious negative consequences already), or you prefer to trust sources which are viewed by most as sources of misinformation. Whatever the reason, if you are wrong and people who share your belief hinder swift and significant actions to address this issue, the outcome is expected to be disastrous.

    If you were being sarcastic, my apologies. I have been dealing with a lot of people who refute the science of global warming over the years, and perhaps it has made me overly sensitive.

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  • Nils Aug 27, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    If you were being sarcastic, my apologies.

    I think the term “prediction” (of denial claims), was the clue!

    I have been dealing with a lot of people who refute the science of global warming over the years, and perhaps it has made me overly sensitive.

    Stick around for the next climate discussion. You can exercise your skills, as when such topics are discussed. It’s usually only a matter of time before some “know-it-all-know-nothing”, turns up full of denial and THINKS they can refute the work of leading climatologists! !

    In the meantime, if you want to check out a few points, here are links to some earlier discussions:-

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  • Nils Aug 27, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    The thawing tundras and heating oceans are indeed tremendously ominous. Well said.

    There is huge potential for a rapidly increasing level of CO2 from the loss of permafrost in the Arctic.

    When the Tundra Burns

    One day in 2007, on the plain in northern Alaska, a lightning strike set the tundra on fire.

    Historically, tundra, a landscape of lichens, mosses and delicate plants, was too damp to burn. But the climate in the area is warming and drying, and fires in both the tundra and forest regions of Alaska are increasing.

    The Anaktuvuk River fire burned about 400 square miles of tundra, and work on lake sediments showed that no fire of that scale had occurred in the region in at least 5,000 years.

    Scientists have calculated that the fire and its aftermath sent a huge pulse of carbon into the air — as much as would be emitted in two years by a city the size of Miami. Scientists say the fire thawed the upper layer of permafrost and set off what they fear will be permanent shifts in the landscape.

    Up to now, the Arctic has been absorbing carbon, on balance, and was once expected to keep doing so throughout this century. But recent analyses suggest that the permafrost thaw could turn the Arctic into a net source of carbon, possibly within a decade or two, and those studies did not account for fire.

    “I maintain that the fastest way you’re going to lose permafrost and release permafrost carbon to the atmosphere is increasing fire frequency,” said Michelle C. Mack, a University of Florida scientist who is studying the Anaktuvuk fire. “It’s a rapid and catastrophic way you could completely change everything.”

    Scientists need better inventories of the ancient carbon. The best estimate so far was published in 2009 by a Canadian scientist, Charles Tarnocai, and some colleagues. They calculated that there was about 1.7 trillion tons of carbon in soils of the northern regions, about 88 percent of it locked in permafrost. That is about two and a half times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

    Philippe Ciais, a leading French scientist, wrote at the time that he was “stunned” by the estimate, a large upward revision from previous calculations.

    “If, in a warmer world, bacteria decompose organic soil matter faster, releasing carbon dioxide,” Dr. Ciais wrote, “this will set up a positive feedback loop, speeding up global warming.”


    Plumes of Methane

    Katey Walter Anthony had been told to hunt for methane, and she could not find it.

    As a young researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, she wanted to figure out how much of that gas was escaping from lakes in areas of permafrost thaw. She was doing field work in Siberia in 2000, scattering bubble traps around various lakes in the summer, but she got almost nothing.

    Then, that October, the lakes froze over. Plumes of methane that had been hard to spot on a choppy lake surface in summer suddenly became more visible.

    “I went out on the ice, this black ice, and it looked like the starry night sky,” Dr. Walter Anthony said. “You could see these bubble clusters everywhere. I realized — ‘aha!’ — this is where all the methane is.”

    When organic material comes out of the deep freeze, it is consumed by bacteria. If the material is well-aerated, bacteria that breathe oxygen will perform the breakdown, and the carbon will enter the air as carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. But in areas where oxygen is limited, like the bottom of a lake or wetland, a group of bacteria called methanogens will break down the organic material, and the carbon will emerge as methane.

    Scientists are worried about both gases. They believe that most of the carbon will emerge as carbon dioxide, with only a few percent of it being converted to methane. But because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, the 41 experts in the recent survey predicted that it would trap about as much heat as the carbon dioxide would.

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