A new push by the Obama Administration to study the viability of deep-sea deposits of methane as an energy source has yielded a $507,000 grant to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
The award from the federal Department of Energy (DOE) was among 14 given to research centers around the country. Scripps geophysicist Steve Constable said the grant will fund the study of coastal permafrost in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska. The frozen earth, which may be as much as 700 meters (2,300 feet) thick, sequesters what are believed to be large deposits of methane.
“Instrument development is a big part of the proposal,” said Constable. “We will need to develop special equipment that can be towed on the surface behind small boats in shallow water.”
Methane exists in extremely compact solid forms known as clathrates in ocean regions where cold temperatures and high pressures keep them stable. Clathrates are contained by masses of ice and are flammable. They quickly dissolve into gas at room temperature and under low pressure. Because the hydrates contain such a large amount of natural gas – one cubic meter of hydrates yields 164 cubic meters of gas when they melt – the DOE is among several government entities and private firms attempting to exploit hydrates as an energy source.
Because methane is a greenhouse gas several times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, scientists at Scripps and elsewhere have studied these deposits as potential contributors to climate change. Researchers have also examined whether deteriorating methane hydrate deposits have contributed to undersea slope failures or other deformations throughout history. The oil industry has also funded study of hydrates, deposits of which sometimes interfere with offshore oil drilling operations.
Scientists have documented the thawing of Arctic permafrost masses that have kept methane deposits buried for thousands of years. Research stations have been in operation since 1998 to explore large gas hydrate fields known to exist in Canadian territorial waters of the Beaufort Sea. Constable said his objectives are to determine where the edge of permafrost is in the region, how thick it is, and how much it is changing with time. He estimated that field research could begin by 2014.
– Robert Monroe