Bacterial bail-out for Deepwater methane

Paul Raven @ 07-01-2011

Well, that’s one less thing to worry about. The Deepwater Horizon oil-well crisis released a whole lot of hydrocarbons into the environment, the most obvious (and destructive) of which was the oil itself. A whole lot of methane got out too, which was something of a worry; we’ve more than enough greenhouse gases to be going on with as it is. But the bulk of the methane released – assuming the estimates of volume were right, anyway – appears to have been eaten up by ocean-going microbes:

Methane is thought to account for 30% by weight of the output from BP’s blown-out well, and was a major component of a vast plume of oil and gas that formed about 1,000 metres deep.

However, contrary to the expectations of the lead researcher in the new study, John Kessler, an oceanographer at Texas A&M University, that the methane would linger for years, nearly all of the gas was consumed by microbes within 120 days of the blow-out.

By the time Kessler and his team returned for the second of their three research missions to the Gulf on 18 August, the methane had been scrubbed.

“All of that evidence had pointed to a much longer lifetime of methane in deepwater plumes with a lifespan possibly as long as years,” he said. “It was quite surprising.”

Readings on methane and oxygen levels at 207 stations indicated a massive “bloom” of methane-eating underwater bacteria sometime between the end of June and the beginning of August. “It likely occurred after affected waters had flowed away from the wellhead,” the study said.

A silver lining to a decidedly dark cloud, there. Someone should get to researching those little beasties quickly; it’d be nice to have some sort of tool to deal with the potential planetary-scale farting that melting permafrost might produce. And who knows – with a bit of bioengineering, perhaps they could be made to convert that methane into something useful.

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One Response to “Bacterial bail-out for Deepwater methane”

  1. SMD says:

    I heard about this on NPR the other day. My understanding is that this study isn’t conclusive and that more research still needs to be done. It seems odd that the bacteria would suddenly ramp up consumption. Another scientist suggested that maybe the methane simply shifted to deeper waters, but who knows? It’s interesting nonetheless; the ocean is full of surprises.