By Jeff McMahon
Worrying about methane hydrates warming the atmosphere is like worrying about your house burning down after it’s been leveled by a hurricane, according to an expert scientist with the Department of Energy.
Methane hydrates—natural gas molecules trapped in a lattice of ice—occur in mud, sand, permafrost and on the sea floor throughout the world in volumes believed greater than all other fossil fuels combined.
As the atmosphere warms, scientists and environmentalists have fretted about those lattices of ice melting and freeing the methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That could not only accelerate warming but change the chemistry of the world’s oceans, increasing acidity and depleting oxygen.
Those “feedback” effects may already be happening as warming releases some hydrates, said Ray Boswell, the technology manager for natural gas technologies at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory—scientists just don’t know. But the warming required to release most hydrates would itself create enough of a problem for humanity.
“Enough climate change to create something noticeable here is enough climate change to have already created a big problem. That’s kind of a consensus view,” Boswell said.
“Most of the people who work on this say don’t get worried about the methane; the problem is the CO2. Don’t take your eye off the ball.”
In an appearance sponsored by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago, Boswell briefed about 50 public policy scholars, economists, physicists, climate scientists and students at the University of Chicago Wednesday on nascent research into methane hydrates, both as an energy resource and as a potential cause of disaster.
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