Methane explosions responsible for mass extinctions?

Gregory Ryskin, a Northwestern University associate professor of chemical engineering, recently suggested that something like 10,000 gigatons of dissolved methane might have accumulated and then exploded, producing a super-massive explosion that would have produced firestorms and flooding and so forth. According to the article that I’m getting this from, Ryskin seems to believe that such an explosion could occur again “unless humans intervene.”

OK, so first question: is there any hard evidence to support this theory?

Second question: if there is hard evidence to support the theory, what in the world can humans do to intervene and prevent another such event from happening?

It’s an interesting thought, but it’s a bit “out there.” Judging from the number of people in the acknowledgments, I’d bet this paper was kicking around for quite a while before the Geology editors decided to publish it. It’s true that the Permian extinctions are unparalleled in Earth history (at least insofar as we can ascertain from the existing fossil record), and that the cause is not understood. However, there are some other hypotheses out there (e.g., a meteor strike like the K-T boundary event) that explain just about as many of the features we see in the geologic record. More work is needed, yadda yadda yadda… :wink:

From my reading of the Geology paper (not the press release, which unsurprisingly is a bit melodramatic), Prof. Ryskin as a chemical engineer is better able to see the “mechanics” of such a hypothetical scenario, but doesn’t seem to have the geological background to integrate it all that well with Earth system processes that don’t necessarily have straightforward results, such as positive and negative climate feedbacks. Hence the need to consult so many other people, which is not a bad thing by any stretch but still points out a weakness.

Methane trapped within ice as gas hydrate on or beneath the sea floor has been a hot research topic in recent years for a variety of reasons that range from explaining changes in past climates to alternate fuel sources. Some researchers have suggested that increasing ocean temperatures at depth might destabilize some of these gas hydrate deposits in a catastrophic fashion, releasing large quantities of methane into the atmosphere where it can (briefly) act as a powerful greenhouse gas. Ryskin is unclear in the paper what he means by human intervention; the only thing I can think of is continued efforts to reduce anthropogenic warming of our climate.

It would be rather useful to be able to extract the methane from these hydrate deposits in a controlled way to help make up the expected shortfall in fossil fuels over the next century or two;
this could also help prevent the sort of events Ryskin is describing.

two problems (there are many others no doubt)
the deposits seem to be sensitive to disturbance, so might come bubbling up uncontrollably if extraction is attempted;
and there is (I believe) a peculiar ecology associated with these deposits which might be lost if they are disturbed.
Still, it is worth looking into.


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