China And Japan Are Harvesting "Combustible Ice" From The Seafloor

Fracking, with a frozen twist. Lukasz Z/Shutterstock

Methane hydrates – frozen watery methane, essentially – can be found buried beneath seafloors and permafrost landscapes all over the world, and as you might suspect, they’re extremely flammable. Japan and China have decided that this ability to generate energy shouldn’t go to waste, and as reported by the Associated Press, they’ve decided to start harvesting these caches.

This so-called “combustible ice” is certainly in plentiful supply. Just recently, the world’s largest methane hydrates store was found beneath the Pacific Ocean, stretching 8,000 kilometers (about 5,000 miles) from Central America all the way to Hawaii’s eastern coastline.

This type of methane will never run out, technically – it’s produced by methanogens, bacteria that release methane as a waste product as part of their weird metabolic processes. So there’s plenty to go around, in a manner of speaking.

China has reported that it’s successfully mined some of the hydrates in the South China Sea as of last week, and Japan has reported a similarly viable operation earlier on in May, offshore from the Shima Peninsula.

Large-scale production is perhaps as much as a decade away, however – and importantly, it comes with two major risks.

Firstly, this stuff really is quite explosive, so drilling for it may be even more dangerous than fracking or oil extraction is. Chain reactions may look good in movies, but you really don’t want to blow up the entire seafloor in real life.

Natural gas is cheap and low-carbon compared to oil and coal, so it's being invested in a lot more recently. Pakhnyushchy/Shutterstock

Secondly, and arguably more worryingly, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), one that’s at least 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat within the atmosphere. It doesn’t linger in our blue skies for anywhere near as long, but in the short-term, it is able to warm the climate quite dramatically.

This warming may be so extreme, in fact, that it melts more permafrost and boils and acidifies the oceans just enough to destabilize even more of the frozen methane supplies. Their subsequent release heats the planet even more, and so on and so forth. Before you know it, you’re trapped in a self-reinforcing warming cycle without an end in sight.

Although it’s difficult to know when the tipping point from temporary to “perpetual” warming will come into effect, it’s best not to tempt fate here.

Mining this combustible ice will either accidentally release methane gas into the ocean or atmosphere, or it will be burned to produce fuel, whereupon it’ll turn into carbon dioxide. Neither of these options are good, but it seems that the abundance of the fuel is too tempting for either China or Japan to ignore.

Basically, this is fracking, but with a new twist. Natural gas on ice. Ho hum.

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