NBC News has covered the research of SMU marine geologist Matthew Hornbach, who led the study that has uncovered a powerful new way to use data from the geological record to discover non-anthropogenic climate changes underway.
The study suggests warmer temperatures are destabilizing up to 2.5 gigatonnes of methane hydrate along the continental slope of the eastern United States.
Co-author on the study is SMU geophysics doctoral student Benjamin Phrampus.
The researchers say it isn’t clear if the methane will release, but the gas would have the potential to rise up through the ocean and into the atmosphere, where it would add to the greenhouse gases warming Earth.
From the study, the authors write:
“Here, using seismic data combined with thermal models, we show that recent changes in intermediate-depth ocean temperature associated with the Gulf Stream are rapidly destabilizing methane hydrate along a broad swathe of the North American margin. The area of active hydrate destabilization covers at least 10,000 square kilometres of the United States eastern margin, and occurs in a region prone to kilometre-scale slope failures. Previous hypothetical studies, postulated that an increase of five degrees Celsius in intermediate-depth ocean temperatures could release enough methane to explain extreme global warming events like the Palaeocene–Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) and trigger widespread ocean acidification. Our analysis suggests that changes in Gulf Stream flow or temperature within the past 5,000 years or so are warming the western North Atlantic margin by up to eight degrees Celsius and are now triggering the destabilization of 2.5 gigatonnes of methane hydrate (about 0.2 per cent of that required to cause the PETM).”
By Miguel Llanos
A changing Gulf Stream off the East Coast has destabilized frozen methane deposits trapped under nearly 4,000 square miles of seafloor, scientists reported Wednesday. And since methane is even more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming gas, the researchers said, any large-scale release could have significant climate impacts.
Temperature changes in the Gulf Stream are “rapidly destabilizing methane hydrate along a broad swathe of the North American margin,” the experts said in a study published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.
Using seismic records and ocean models, the team estimated that 2.5 gigatonnes of frozen methane hydrate are being destabilized and could separate into methane gas and water.
It is not clear if that is happening yet, but that methane gas would have the potential to rise up through the ocean and into the atmosphere, where it would add to the greenhouse gases warming Earth.
The 2.5 gigatonnes isn’t enough to trigger a sudden climate shift, but the team worries that other areas around the globe might be seeing a similar destabilization.
“It is unlikely that the western North Atlantic margin is the only area experiencing changing ocean currents,” they noted. “Our estimate … may therefore represent only a fraction of the methane hydrate currently destabilizing globally.”
The wider destabilization evidence, co-author Ben Phrampus told NBC News, includes data from the Arctic and Alaska’s northern slope in the Beaufort Sea.
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