Craters up to a kilometer (0.6 miles) wide have been found within the Barents Sea off the northern coast of Norway. As reported by the Sunday Times, these are likely to be due to unstable build-ups of methane, a notoriously volatile and at times explosive natural gas. Details are few and far between at present, although researchers at the Arctic University of Norway are due to present their findings in detail at the annual European Geoscience Union conference this coming April.
“Multiple giant craters exist on the sea floor in an area in the west-central Barents Sea... and are probably a cause of enormous blowouts of gas,” the research team told the Sunday Times. “The crater area is likely to represent one of the largest hotspots for shallow marine methane release in the Arctic.”
Although these huge methane bubbles could perhaps take out a ship or two sailing in these shallow waters, the links that several journalistic outlets are making with the Bermuda Triangle may be a bit of a stretch.
Methane under certain conditions is stored as a compound known as methane hydrate, and vast caches of it are found both beneath the seabed. This natural gas is also generated within great expanses of long-term frozen soil known as permafrost, which mostly exists in Siberia, Greenland and Alaska: When organic matter there is decomposed by microbes under warmer, low-oxygen conditions, methane is produced.
Due to man-made climate change, the world is warming at an unprecedented rate, which is beginning to unlock these caches, although the rate at which the methane is escaping skyward currently remains unclear.
In any case, melting permafrost is definitley unleashing methane gas, the second-most dangerous global warming greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, causing the planet to warm further to some degree. Within the oceans, the hydrates are becoming increasingly unstable due to both warming and increasing acidification, and the same effusion process is suspected of taking place there too.
These craters are certainly big, but methane bubbles up from the depths all the time. Rich Carey/Shutterstock
If an entire “chunk” of these hydrates suddenly becomes unstable, a lot of methane gas can escape at once. This can generate craters, such as those found beneath the surface of the Barents Sea. It’s difficult to estimate how much energy is being released in these crater forming “explosions,” but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that – at over half a mile across each – they could be energetic enough to sink ships passing above them. The evidence for this type of ship sinking, however, remains deeply tenuous.
This methane forcing itself up from the depths has likely happened before, around 56 million years ago. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was a sudden and catastrophic warming event that bumped up the world’s temperature by 5 to 8°C (9 to 15°F) in just 20,000 years, and researchers have occasionally surmised that a massive methane hydrates release is to blame.
However, the link with the Bermuda Triangle, which is off the eastern coast of Florida, is somewhat weak – this study doesn’t appear to have anything to do with this part of the world. Nevertheless, gargantuan methane bubbles have been cited before as a possible ship-sinking phenomenon in the Triangle. Even if they don’t cause a damaging blast, a methane bubble is considerably less dense than the sea around it; if it rises up beneath a ship, it could cause it to suddenly sink.
There’s just one problem with this: The Bermuda Triangle doesn’t officially exist, in that it’s not recognized by various scientific institutions of the United States. It’s statistically no more dangerous than any other stretch of ocean, and perhaps most importantly of all, there has been no methane bubbling up from beneath it for at least 15,000 years.