Originally thought to occur only in the outer regions of the Solar System where temperatures are low and water ice is common, a significant amount of methane hydrate is deposited under sediments on the ocean floors of Earth. The BP Gulf disaster could unlock millions of cubic feet of this gas which could potentially have devastating consequences for the entire planet.
At the ocean floor lies a sleeping monster, one that millions of years ago devastated the Earth, causing a mass-extinction, and today is slowly being released again. It is silent, invisible and deadly, and contains double the energy of the entire world's fossil fuels combined. It is the frozen methane reserves at the bottom of the sea; capable of causing massive rises in global temperatures and igniting the atmosphere.
Methane is an extremely flammable and explosive gas. At the bottom of the ocean it is found in the form of 'methane hydrate', when the particles are locked in a lattice with water. When this melts, it releases methane gas with 160 times this volume. Methane hydrate is found deep in the oceans, usually more than 1000 feet deep and abundant at the levels drilled at the BP Gulf disaster site. It is estimated that there is more than 200,000 trillion cubic feet of this gas at the bottom of the ocean; 80,000 times conventional natural gas reserves.
55 million years ago, 20% of the world's frozen methane reserves melted. This sparked cataclysmic changes in the atmosphere: global temperatures rose by 13 degrees Fahrenheit, melting the ice caps and forcing many species to extinction. 80% of all deep-sea creatures became extinct, and there were severe consequences for land animals.
Could the same be happening today? A very high concentration of what is being leaked from the BP site is likely methane gas. If it were only crude oil, you would primarily see a black viscous liquid (like tar) seeping from the well. If you look closely at the video, this is not the case. In fact, although millions of liters of crude oil have escaped from the drill head, they pale in comparison to the amount of methane and other compounds that are being released. This is the sleeping dragon, not the crude oil.
Methane is 20 times more powerful a gas at raising global temperatures than carbon dioxide, so a release of a vast quantity of gas would cause huge temperature rises around the world. If temperatures rose by the 13 degrees Fahrenheit they did during the last release, ice caps would start to melt flooding large areas of the Earth. They wanted man to influence global warming? Well BP may have single handedly accomplished it.
Worse, the gas could be ignited by lightning, leaving huge fires over areas of land, with coastal areas at especially great risk of destruction. Many cities that escaped the rising sea levels would not be spared the fire.
What BP really appears to have accomplished is drilling into a high pressure under water volcano. This is not something that can be capped or stopped with any means or technology that is currently available. The amount of pressure would be so high that only an act of God could stop it. It will simply spew until the pressure decreases or until ignited by some type of explosion. Judging from the political antics, the latter seems more plausible.
If an explosion does occur, it will likely be so dramatic that it will displace a large portion of the ocean floor causing a potentially devastating tsunami that could affect the entire coastal region.
A word of advice to those residents living 200 km from the Gulf Coast....start heading North now while you still have the chance.
Liz Bentley is a graduate in geology, professional photographer and freelance journalist with an acute insight into fossil records and climatology.