Will Methane Gas in Gulf Waters Create a Massive Dead Zone?

By Joseph Calamia | June 24, 2010 10:39 am

oil-slickPerhaps it’s a disservice to continue calling the oil pouring into the Gulf a spill. “Spill” makes it hard to conceptualize the estimated 60,000 barrels of oil per day blasting up from a well more than 5,000 feet below sea level. It also makes it difficult to picture how, as BP estimates, as much as 40 percent of the material “spilling” is methane gas. That methane has been largely overshadowed by the horror of oil-soaked pelicans and tar balls washing ashore, but now a survey, completed on Monday, has measured how the methane has spread.

What’s the problem with methane? The microbes that feed off it. It can create “methane seep ecosystems”–shallow food chains that eat crude oil and dissolved methane and in the process consume all available oxygen, leaving nothing for other marine life forms. Bacteria eat the methane and “ice worms” (so-called because they live around ice-like methane hydrate) eat bacteria, but nothing else eats these worms. This creates a “dead zone.”

So in short [an abundance of creatures that use] methane for food and oxygen to “breathe” will create areas where only bacteria and a few other non-life sustaining organisms can live. All others die. [San Francisco Chronicle]

John Kessler, a Texas A&M University oceanography professor, finished a ten-day exploration of the spill earlier this week, measuring levels of dissolved methane around 4,500 feet under the water’s surface from 35 different sites, the furthest seven miles from the spill.

Levels of methane in deep-ocean waters near the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are 10,000 to 100,000 times higher than normal, and in some very hot spots “we saw them approaching 1 million times above” what would be normal, says ocean chemist John Kessler. [USA Today]

Kessler’s team also measured the levels of oxygen depletion–the sign that microbes are feeding on the methane. These numbers varied.

“At some locations, we saw depletions of up to 30 percent of oxygen based on its natural concentration in the waters. At other places, we saw no depletion of oxygen in the waters. We need to determine why that is,” he told the briefing. [Reuters]

We’ll have to wait for further results to see if the dissolved methane is indeed fueling a new dead zone in the Gulf. As Science Insider reports, Kessler and David Valentine, an oceanographer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also hope that measuring the dissolved methane may be a way to quantify the extent of the spreading oil.

Recent posts on the Gulf Oil Spill:
80beats: From Marsh Grass to Manatees: The Next Wave of Life Endangered by BP’s Oil
80beats: Obama’s Speech on the Oil Spill: What Do You Think of His “Battle Plan”?
80beats: BP to Kevin Costner: We’ll Take 32 of Your Oil Clean-up Machines
80beats: Should We Just Euthanize the Gulf’s Oil-Soaked Birds?

Image: NASA and the MODIS Rapid Response Team

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Gil

    By use of the term “dissolved methane”, I assume that none of the methane is airborne at this time. What are the chances that the methane will become airborne? Does anyone out there know?

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    I don’t think we need to worry about the methane, US dairy produces 5 billion liters per day as of 2007 (probably less now that the price of milk crashed with the rest of the economy) – but that doesn’t count in the cattle raised for beef. Thanks to modern agriculture that number is on the decline (about 1/3rd as much methane per pound of milk as there was in 1944).

    http://www.ag.iastate.edu/wastemgmt/Mitigation_Conference_proceedings/CD_proceedings/Animal_Housing_Diet/Chase-Methane_Emissions.pdf

    I say we’re going to have a giant ass-dead zone no matter what because the gulf is full of freakin toxins anyway. Probably better to have it be caused by bacteria and other organisms eating this toxic stew and turning into more relatively harmless compounds – at least when the oil is gone the organisms will die and the gulf can start repairing itself. There’s really nothing we can do that’s going to have a really great impact on that.

    The pictures I see of cleanup crews on the beach with what amounts to a shop vac picking up the oil just make me want to cry. It really drives home the futility of the cleanup effort vs. the awesome efficiency of BP’s well at spewing this mess. Our clean up effort is so poor that if you have a photo that shows the full extent of the spell you can’t see any of it except for the oil that’s built up along the line of booms we’ve put out to keep the biggest parts off the shore.

  • gwhz

    “What’s the problem with methane? The microbes that feed off it. It can create “methane seep ecosystems”–shallow food chains that eat crude oil and dissolved methane and in the process consume all available oxygen, leaving nothing for other marine life forms. Bacteria eat the methane and “ice worms” (so-called because they live around ice-like methane hydrate) eat bacteria, but nothing else eats these worms. This creates a “dead zone.””

    Dear readers, this is quite confused. Yes, microbial consumption of dissolved methane depletes oxygen. Too much dissolved methane leads to too much methane consumption and too much oxygen depletion. This (and this is all you need) makes the water less hospitable to life, as most marine life needs to extract oxygen from water in order to live (gills, etc.). The stuff about ice worms is just some bizarre confusion on the author’s part…

  • colin brown

    The problem is that our oxygen comes from the ocean. Methane hydrate has already emerged in seepage around Oregon and the west coast waters now share a huge dead zone. Now the Gulf of Mexico is going to die. How much will be left for us to breathe – since we have cut down our forests? No joke or alarmism. The great Permian extinction was caused by a disappearance of atmospheric oxygen.

  • Joseph Calamia

    Thanks for the comments. Gwhz, I apologize for any confusion.

    I found out about the “ice worms” in the San Francisco Chronicle piece (linked above). I thought the writer, Yobie Benjamin, brought up an interesting point that I didn’t see covered elsewhere. The term “dead zone” is in some ways misleading–since some organisms, like these worms can thrive in this polluted ecosystem–but they don’t really benefit other organisms, as described above.

    More on ice worms here:
    http://www.science.psu.edu/news-and-events/1997-news/iceworms.htm

  • http://discovery Carol Geary

    I Live in Pensacola, Fl. I livce 25 miles from the Gulf of mexico, and when we have cloudy weather and walk out on the deck we spell Oil fumes. My Qustion is this: according to a Man on fox news and I quote Said that Methane gas mixed with the air we breath is hazardous for us to breath is this true? This oilspill is not a six month ordeal it will be aroind for a decade how shameful.

  • http://outfitnm.com/Images/MrCoolBrian901.jpg Brain Rodgers

    “…according to a Man on fox news and I quote Said that Methane gas mixed with the air we breath is hazardous for us to breath is this true?” You are joking I hope.
    Yes in this case it sounds like Fox News actually had some truth in their story. Methane by itself is bad, but even though there seems to be little news about it here, the gaseous stuff spewing from the hole in the Earth is doubtless super toxic. Take a vacation from there

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