Short fuse on clathrate bomb?

Structure of a gas hydrate (methane clathrate)...
Gas hydrate (methane clathrate) block embedded in seabed sediment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The biggest tsunami to affect inhabitants of Britain, mentioned in the earlier post Landslides and multiple dangers, emanated from the Storegga Slide in the northern North Sea west of Norway. That submarine debris flow was probably launched by gas hydrates beneath the sea bed breaking down to release methane thereby destabilising soft sediments on the continental slope. Similar slides were implicated in breaking Europe-America communications in the 20th century, such as the Grand Banks Slide of 1929 that severed submarine cables up to 600 km from the source of the slide. Even now, much Internet traffic is carried across oceans along optic-fibre cables, breakages disrupting and slowing services. A more mysterious facet of clathrate breakdown is its possible implication in unexplained and sudden losses of ships. When gas escapes to the surface, the net density of seawater decreases, the more so as the proportion of bubbles increases. Ship design and cargo loading rests on an assumed water density range from fresh to salt water and for different temperatures at high and low latitudes.

Gulf stream map
Gulf stream map (credit: Wikipedia)

The Atlantic seaboard of the USA hosts some of the best-studied accumulations of clathrates in the top 100-300 m of seabed sediments. Since their discovery these ‘cage complexes’ of mainly methane and carbon dioxide trapped within molecules of water ice have been studied in detail. Importantly, the temperatures at which they form and the range over which they remain stable depend on pressure and therefore depth below the sea surface. At atmospheric pressure solid methane hydrate is unstable at any likely temperature and requires -20°C to form at a pressure equivalent to 200 m water depth. Yet is stable at temperatures up to 10°C 500 m down and 20°C at a depth of 2 km. Modern sea water cools to around 0°C at depths greater than 1.5 km, so gas hydrates can form virtually anywhere that there is a source of methane or CO2 in seafloor sediment. In the sediments temperature increases sharply with depth beneath the seabed due to geothermal heat flow thereby limiting the clathrate stability zone to the top few hundred metres.

Two factors may lead to clathrate instability: falling sea level and sea-floor pressure or rising sea-floor temperature. Many gas-hydrate deposits, especially on the continental shelf and continental edge are likely to be close to their stability limits, hence the worries about destabilisation should global warming penetrate through the water column. The western North Atlantic is an area of especial concern because the Gulf Stream flows northward from the Caribbean to pass close to the US seaboard off the Carolinas: that massive flow of tropical warm water has been increasing during the last 5 thousand years so that its thermal effects are shifting westwards.

Geophysicists Benjamin Phrampus and Matthew Hornbach of the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas have used thermal modelling to predict that gas-hydrate instability is imminent across 10 thousand square kilometres of the Caroline Rise (Phrampus, B.J. & Hornbach, M.J. 2012. Recent changes to the Gulf Stream causing widespread gas hydrate destabilization. Nature, v. 490, p. 527-530). As a test they analysed two seismic reflection profiles across the Carolina Rise, seeking anomalies known as bottom-simulating reflectors that signify free gas in the sediments. These are expected at the base of the gas-hydrate zone and their presence helps assess sediment temperature. At depths less than 1 km the base of the gas-hydrates modelled from the present temperature profile through the overlying seawater lies significantly above the base’s signature on seismic lines. The deeper levels probably formed under cooler conditions than now – probably eight degrees cooler – and may be unstable. If that is correct, the Caroline Rise area seems set to release around 2.5 Gt of methane to add to atmospheric greenhouse warming. The Storegga Slide also lies close to the northern track of the Gulf-Stream – North Atlantic Drift…