A clathrate is a compound that forms a matrix, in which other chemicals can be held. These methane clathrates are water ice that hold methane molecules. It was first thought that these could only form in the deep solar system, but recently significant deposits of the stuff have been found in ocean waters (even warm water like the Gulf of Mexico) all over the world.
This is great news for Japan. Now they potentially have a source of power that can run their country for up to ten years with just the material in their waters.
However, it’s a disaster for the climate.
The current scientific consensus is that the ocean contains between one and five million cubic kilometers of methane clathrates. If they are pure methane, that translates to roughly 500-2500 gigatons of carbon. Which will be extracted, burned and pumped into the atmosphere.
Right now, we (as a species) are pumping between 7 and 8 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. Over the next few decades, we could increase that significantly with methane clathrates.
Sadly, that’s probably the good news. Methane is a greenhouse gas on its own. The good news is that methane in the atmosphere chemically breaks down on its own (into carbon dioxide and water, both greenhouse gases as well). The bad news is that over that ten year lifespan of methane in the atmosphere, it’s about 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Why is that important?
Because some of these methane clathrate deposits exist in the permafrost of the arctic. As the temperature warms, the permafrost melts, releasing the methane gas. Which goes into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect.
Shakhova notes that the Earth’s geological record indicates that atmospheric methane concentrations have varied between about .3 to .4 parts per million during cold periods to .6 to .7 parts per million during warm periods. Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years, she said. Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher.
It may be that actually extracting the methane and burning it is the lesser of two evils. But why are we even talking about this anyway, when there are so many other options for generating power?
Do we know what will happen? No and we’re conducting a massive experiment on a global scale. If scientists are wrong, then nothing much will happen. If scientists are right, then we are causing massive damage to our only home with no way to fix it.
Can we afford to take the chance that science, which has brought us every tool in existence, is wrong?