A Window of Opportunity for Methane to Slip by Nature’s Filters


A new study develops a method to understand the role of microorganisms in increasing emissions of methane from seabeds.

Vast reservoirs of the potent greenhouse gas methane are stored beneath the sea in a solid ice-like combination with water. This solid is known as methane hydrate. For over three decades, various concerns have been raised that warming the seafloor may cause this methane to be rapidly released, perhaps even reaching the atmosphere where it would cause further climate warming. Happily, this methane hydrate is mostly located beneath the seafloor and under hundreds of meters of seawater. Even if warming melts this methane hydrate and releases methane gas, the natural microbial filters present in the seafloor were expected to destroy most of the methane before it ever reaches the open seawater.

However, there have been some gaps in our knowledge of the relevant seafloor processes. In particular, can seafloor warming be rapid enough that methane hydrate could melt so fast that the released methane would overwhelm and ultimately bypass the natural microbial filters?

“The microbial filter layer in the sediment—we call it the ‘sulfate-methane transition’, where methane is removed—is somewhat delicate,” explains Assistant Professor Christian Stranne at the Department of Geological Sciences, Stockholm University.

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Image via Stockholm University