Home > NewsRelease > Methane Hydrate Kraken Beneath Arctic Ocean Slayed by Wee Beasties While Ocean Currents Flow Stronger
Methane Hydrate Kraken Beneath Arctic Ocean Slayed by Wee Beasties While Ocean Currents Flow Stronger
Dr. Rob Moir -- Ocean River Institute Dr. Rob Moir -- Ocean River Institute
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Cambridge, MA
Thursday, February 18, 2021


Methane hydrate, the so-called monster, lies beneath the sea floor. In sediments on the ocean bottom, microorganism remove oxygen making conditions lower down anoxic. Here, methanogens produce methane that is trapped as the notorious gas hydrates.

In practice, rather than theory, there is a catastrophic difference between the increasing summer melt of Arctic Ocean sea ice and the thaw of methane hydrate down below.

The ocean above the sea floor is stratified into water bodies of differing densities. Image a layer cake of waters each layer with a distinct identity of saltiness and temperature. Rising atmospheric annual temperatures, water runoff from the land and inputs from rivers warms the surface water body. In October, when bitter cold weather returns, sea water freezes again. Salts are left to puddle in cold water around the freshwater ice. This super dense water sinks to displace and drive ocean circulation, a process oceanographers call thermohaline circulation.

Summers in the Arctic, during the last few decades, have seen more and more open ocean water. Once only about a third of the Arctic Ocean was open water. In recent summers, more than two thirds of the sea ice has melted away. With more sea water returning to sea ice, there has been a corresponding increase of sea water circulation out of the Arctic and into the Atlantic. Off of Greenland in the Denmark Strait, cold Arctic water dense with nutrients plunges 11,000 feet beneath warmer, less nutrient-rich Atlantic waters. What has been called the largest waterfall in the world becomes a deep flowing intermediate water body called the Labrador Current.

The increased flow of ocean out of the Arctic is apparent with the Gulf Stream having greater meanders, evidence of increased lateral energy release. At the end of the line, in Svalbard fiords on the threshold of the Arctic Ocean, warm Gulf Stream water has surfaced and is causing glaciers to melt on the land. Warm intermediate water enters the Arctic Ocean to accelerate the warming of surface waters, the summer melt of ice and the motion of the world’s oceans.

While it may take a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius to commence the hydrate melt down, it’s not like the plug to the freezer was pulled out and door left ajar. During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, 55 million years ago, it took 100,000 years to release the methane hydrate. Even then the methane fizzle was lessened by the chowing down of bacteria and the hoovering up by single-celled organisms that lack nuclei, called Archaea. Massive food chains, for example at deep ocean thermal vents, are fed a cornucopia of such beasties.

Methane in the atmosphere, unlike carbon dioxide, is destroyed by solar radiation and breaks down in about twelve years. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, lasts in the atmosphere for a very long time. Taking this shorter life span into account, pound for pound methane is still about thirty times more greenhouse potent than is carbon dioxide. However, methane plays a much smaller part at warming the atmospheric temperature. Carbon dioxide, weighing in at 408 parts per million, is the monster compared to meek methane at 1.9 parts per million. For every ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is 4.5 pounds of methane. At thirty times the strength of CO2 that is 1,000 vs 137 pounds of methane. Methane is a light weight.

With the climate crisis raging all about, the wee beasties, anaerobic methanotrophic archaea and sulfate-reducing bacteria, prevail. To the victor belongs the methane hydrate.

The Ocean River Institute provides opportunities to make a difference and go the distance for savvy stewardship of a greener and bluer planet Earth.  www.oceanriver.org 

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Name: Rob Moir
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Group: Ocean River Institute
Dateline: Cambridge, MA United States
Direct Phone: 617-661-6647
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