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.


Space is the place, redux

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2010

Seeing as how SpaceX managed to pull off the first commercial rocket launch to reach orbit over the weekend, I figure we’re allowed to get a bit excited about space again… it’s a welcome distraction from the World Cup, if nothing else. It might have been even more of a distraction to our antipodean friends, some of whom spotted weird lights in the sky that may (or may not) have been parts of the Falcon 9 falling back to Earth [via SlashDot].

But who can we trust to tell us the truth of it, hmmm? After all, the Chinese have a history of telling porkies about their space program, and hell knows the Cold War space race was all about giving the people the story you wanted them to believe… it might be fun to work as a spin doctor for a multinational space company.

Speaking of the Cold War, did you know that Venera, the Russian mission to Venus, was the first to send back photographic images from another planet? If any nation-state or corporation is taking a poll on where we should send space probes next, my vote goes for Titan – it’d be fun to find out if those atmospheric anomalies are actually the signal of methane-based microbial life that they appear to be


Is there life on Mars? Atmospheric methane says ‘maybe’

Paul Raven @ 15-01-2009

MarsAfter last year’s long-awaited confirmed discovery of water on the red planet, David Bowie comes another step closer to finding the answer to his question: NASA called a press conference today to announce that they have, in partnership with some university science teams, “achieved the first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars”.

So what’s the big deal with that? Basically, there’s two reasons you might find methane in a planetary atmosphere: geological activity or biological activity. It’s going to take a lot more work to discover which of the two is the culprit in the case of Mars (and the NASA announcement does a better job that I can of explaining it all), but either option is pretty exciting to space nerds… after all, it’s not all that long ago that we pretty much assumed the whole planet was inert.

And as a side-tangent, this is great political timing from NASA, whether accidental or deliberate – with a new president about to enter the White House with promises to shake things up, announcements like this get everybody talking about space with that old-school sensawunda I remember from my childhood… and given the bleak state of the news headlines at the moment, something to make us look up from the mundane for a moment can only be a positive. Something big to dream about. [image by chipdatajeffb]

I mean, just think – life on Mars! It’s like something out of a science fiction novel, isn’t it? 😉


Climate change steps on the gas

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2008

melting Arctic iceHoooooo-boy. Just in case global financial disasters and geopolitical instabilities haven’t given you enough things to worry about, here’s a another: remember when scientists suggested that melting ice-caps at the poles of the planet could end up releasing massive reservoirs of sub-oceanic methane into the atmosphere, amplifying the greenhouse effect and accelerating climate change to an even greater degree?

Turns out that we’re finding more evidence for that theory than anyone really wants to find. Anyone wanna buy us out of this little problem? [via WorldChanging; image from linked Independent article]


Melting northlands might mitigate some effects of climate change

Jeremy Eades @ 27-09-2007

There are enough bad peat puns in the article, so I’ll spare you any in the headline here.  Conventional wisdom regarding climate change dictates that as temperatures rise, the frozen lands in the north will release methane that has been locked in the ground.  Methane is regarded as being 23 times stronger than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat, so this phenomenon would likely accelerate global warming.

As bad as it may seem, it may not be quite so.  A five year study done by ecologists at Michigan State University in East Lansing has found that as the frozen peatlands thaw out, they become wetter and provide fertile ground for fast-growing water plants which will suck up carbon dioxide, thus offsetting some of the methane release.

Of course, it won’t be a one-for-one tradeoff.  And as the wetlands fill in, the water plants will be replaced by slower-growing dryland plants and trees.  These new northern forests aren’t nearly as good at reducing global warming as the tropical ones.

So there you go.  We’re still going down the tubes, just not quite as quickly as people thought before.  Well, I’m off for a drink.

(via SciTech Daily Review) (image via brewbooks)