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Methane Explosion

At the ocean floor lies a sleeping monster, one that millions of years ago devastated the Earth, causing a mass-extinction, and today could be released again. It is silent, invisible and deadly, and contains double the energy of the entire world's fossil fuels combined. It is the frozen methane reserves at the bottom of the sea; capable of causing massive rises in global temperatures and igniting the atmosphere.

Has frozen methane ever been released before?
55 million years ago, 20% of the world's frozen methane reserves melted. This sparked cataclysmic changes in the atmosphere: global temperatures rose by 13 degrees Fahrenheit, melting the ice caps and forcing many species to extinction. 80% of all deep-sea creatures became extinct, and there were severe consequences for land animals. If vast amounts of methane were released, the highly explosive gas would be ignited by lightning, scorching huge area in a fiery hell-on-earth.

What is methane?
Methane is an extremely flammable and explosive gas. At the bottom of the ocean it is found in a form called 'methane hydrate', when the particles are locked in a lattice with water. When this melts, it releases methane gas with 160 times this volume. Methane hydrate is found deep in the oceans, more than 350m down. It is estimated that there is more than 200,000 trillion cubic feet of this gas at the bottom of the ocean; 80,000 times conventional natural gas reserves.

How is it released?
Small bursts of methane hydrate can be released by sudden events that break the lattice, such as landslides and earthquakes on the ocean floor. This releases a large amount of methane from the local area. This has been suggested as a possible explanation for the Bermuda Triangle - an area of ocean in the South Atlantic where dozens of ships and planes have disappeared without trace. The theory goes that landslides release the methane, which explodes on contact with, for example, a plane's engines. This shows how dangerous even small bursts can be.

It would take a bigger event than an earthquake or landslide to start releasing vast quantities of methane hydrate. The current fear is that global warming would increase the ocean temperature to the point where frozen methane starts to melt all over the world.

What would be the effects if the gas was released?
If a large proportion of the gas were released the effects would be devastating. If hundreds of thousands of trillions of tons were released into the atmosphere, the rate global warming would skyrocket. Methane is 20 times more powerful a gas at raising global temperatures than carbon dioxide, so a release of a vast quantity of gas would cause huge temperature rises around the world. If temperatures rose by the 13 degrees Fahrenheit they did during the last release, ice caps would start to melt flooding large areas of the Earth. Worse, the gas would be ignited by lightning, leaving huge fires over areas of land, with coastal areas at especially great risk of destruction. Many cities that escaped the rising sea levels would not be spared the fire.

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