Methane Burst: Cometary Impact in Reverse

Sometimes my imagination stumbles all over itself, and a little science goes far beyond the bounds of the known into the terrific imagined. I had such an epiphany of remote possibility six weeks ago: that the dome of gas in the gulf was a massive balloon under pressure.

We know what happens when you prick very large balloon with a very small pin.

BP’s drill (and the wells being drilled to fix that one) are the pins. What if, all of a sudden, the incredible pressures forcing millions of barrels of oil–and far more methane than had been expected–were released in one cataclysmic explosion?

Impossible? Apparently, it has happened before.

“The consequences of a methane-driven oceanic eruption for marine and terrestrial life are likely to be catastrophic. Figuratively speaking, the erupting region “boils over,” ejecting a large amount of methane and other gases (e.g., CO2, H2S) into the atmosphere, and flooding large areas of land. Whereas pure methane is lighter than air, methane loaded with water droplets is much heavier, and thus spreads over the land, mixing with air in the process (and losing water as rain). The air-methane mixture is explosive at methane concentrations between 5% and 15%; as such mixtures form in different locations near the ground and are ignited by lightning, explosions and conflagrations destroy most of the terrestrial life, and also produce great amounts of smoke and of carbon dioxide…”

Unthinkable? Maybe we should think BEFORE our unmitigated arrogance and greed sends us into places we have no business until we know far more about the consequences. Maybe we get another chance.

Or maybe Deepwater is only a most-terrible-in-human-history environmental disaster and not the end of an epoch after all–this time.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. The question is will our unquenchable thirst for energy be our doom. The answer is yes on a number of fronts. Fortunately there is still time to change this irrational behavior that will certainly lead to our demise if left unchecked.

  2. I read both links and I’m glad I did. The second one had a calming effect after the terror induced by the first. Now that the Wall Street legislation is finalized I hope the administration can push to enact the climate change legislation. I’m hopeful that we can get it done before the mid-term elections.

  3. I’m not sure how much fear to take from the first one or solace from the second. We are poking nature harder and harder in our arrogance. In this realm of geological experimentation, we have entered new territory where, were it not for our oil addiction, we know we should not be. Bottom line: the most dangerous formation on planet earth is inside our collective skulls. Nature will survive us. We, in our present state, cannot keep this up for much longer. There is not much time left to change our relationship with nature, I think. A methane explosion at least would be a decisive tipping point. Anything more gradual is invisible to us–frogs in the kettle, and the temp is going up.