In all cases, the methane is generated by particular types of bacteria that release methane compounds as part of their energy production processes. Importantly, the production of biogenic methane is an inevitable natural process that we can do nothing to stop.
As the world warms due to human activity, this frozen methane begins to destabilize, melt away, and escape, either into the oceans or the atmosphere. Indeed, the authors suggest that the volcanically induced warming that brought about the Cretaceous Hothouse likely destabilized these ancient methane deposits, causing them to disintegrate.
Although it’s not yet clear how much of this methane made it through the oceans and into the atmosphere, there’s a good chance it exacerbated the climate warming at the time. This would have triggered a further warming of the oceans, and the release of yet more methane.
Beyond a certain point, this self-reinforcing process may have become unstoppable.
This positive feedback cycle is thought by some researchers as being just as likely to happen in the present era. In fact, the team conclude that “the widespread occurrence of methane seep deposits in Early Cretaceous strata on Ellef Ringnes Island provides an excellent analogue for the present-day potential of global warming-induced hydrate destabilization.”
Although there is ample evidence for the not-insignificant leaking of methane in the Arctic today, scientists aren’t yet sure what the critical temperature may be for a runaway warming effect. Either way, we don’t really want to tempt the beast by driving up global temperatures as fast as we can manage.
The more we heat the planet, the more likely methane will begin to inexorably escape from its frozen prisons. Lifetimestock/Shutterstock
[H/T: Washington Post]