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Apr 01 2013

Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Denizens of the icy deeps

You know those deep icy fields of methane hydrates Japan wants to tap for natural gas? (One of the worst ideas ever, by the way.) They’re inhabited, by polychaetes like Hesiocaeca methanicola.

arctic-worms

(via NatGeo, which is a bit too uncritical of the idea for my taste.)

18 comments

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  1. 1
    iknklast

    Japan is a signatory of the UNCLOS, which has a 50 year moratorium on mineral exploration in the ocean. Wouldn’t this be a violation? (US did not sign; we observe its provisions voluntarily. That gives us a lot of room to step in and start our own operations if we decide Japan is getting the resources we’d like to have). I realize international treaties are regarded as just suggestions by some countries; but why sign it if you’re going to violate it?

  2. 2
    paul

    What exactly makes the the worst idea ever? Is it the amount of methane that is expected to be released during the clathrate mining process?

  3. 3
    Crissa

    What about the Japanese exploitation of rare earth minerals on the ocean floor?

    I was wondering what they expect to do with all the critters…

  4. 4
    Lofty

    I’m sure the Japanese can invent a “research” project which involves harvesting, freezing and eating the critters as well as destabilising the clathrate deposits and causing an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

  5. 5
    yazikus

    @Lofty
    I recently had to explain to a three year old why you can’t eat whales, you know, except in Japan and Norway. Because. Naturally, the three year old in question was not satisfied by this and had to be dissuaded from planning to fish and eat a “baby humpback whale”. Kids these days!

  6. 6
    paul

    @yazikus

    Make the kid watch Star Trek IV!

  7. 7
    yazikus

    @paul

    I will definitely do this. I haven’t had the pleasure of watching that one myself yet, either. (Thank you wikipedia and paul for making me half choke on my beverage due to unexpected chortling).

  8. 8
    madscientist

    Ah, mining clathrates. I never understood how it was supposed to work – it would be so energy intensive and with next to nothing gained. Clathrates are a big enough nuisance in gas fields since they form in the plumbing and the heaters/power required to control them are a huge extra cost. I just can’t imagine scaling the heating power to handle 100% clathrate when the stuff that forms in normal gas operations are a big enough nuisance. I’m putting this clathrate mining in the same category as geoengineering.

  9. 9
    otranreg

    I wonder how thick these worms are: they look like they’re painted on the ice.

  10. 10
    paul

    Ah, mining clathrates. I never understood how it was supposed to work – it would be so energy intensive and with next to nothing gained. Clathrates are a big enough nuisance in gas fields since they form in the plumbing and the heaters/power required to control them are a huge extra cost. I just can’t imagine scaling the heating power to handle 100% clathrate when the stuff that forms in normal gas operations are a big enough nuisance.

    I thought that clathrate hydrates formed close to freezing, but I saw somewhere that the freezing point increases with pressure. So, do high pressure gas lines get clogged with clathrates well above 0C? Do the ones on the bottom of the ocean melt when brought up to lower pressure?

  11. 11
    michaelbusch

    @paul @10 & 2:

    Right. Mix some water in with the methane in the pipeline. Push that mixture through a high-pressure spot that is too cold and clathrate will freeze out onto the walls of the pipe. If you drop the pressure, the clathrate disassociates and the methane escapes. Then you can either pipe it off and condense it, or set it on fire (which leads to bizarre pictures of burning water ice).

    There are two problems with mining clathrates:
    1. There is a lot of carbon locked in them. If that gets into the atmosphere as CO2, it will cause a very big problem for at least the next few thousand years. The magnitude of the problem will be in direct proportion to how long clathrate mining delays switching over to a carbon-neutral grid.
    2. Not all the methane will be turned into CO2 – some will escape unburnt in the extraction process. If that fraction is higher than ~1%, then the greenhouse warming contribution per unit of usable energy released will be worse than that from burning higher-order hydrocarbons.

  12. 12
    OldEd

    Paul, that methane, either as a gas or as the clathrate has two problems with it:
    (1) Methane alone is 13 times as powerful a global warming gas as CO2…
    (2) Burning it releases carbon (as carbon dioxide) that has been locked up – sequestered, if you will – for a LOOOOOOONG period of time… It is as bad as burning coal or oil or natural gas (methane) that we get from drilling holes in the ground – with or without fracking…

  13. 13
    Owlmirror

    Japan is a signatory of the UNCLOS, which has a 50 year moratorium on mineral exploration in the ocean. Wouldn’t this be a violation?

    UNCLOS is of course one of the covers for the Benthic Treaty. Pissing off the Deep Ones is a really bad idea.

    Was the Tōhoku tsunami a warning?

    (Those “polychaetes” are obviously larval shoggoths or something)

  14. 14
    Azuma Hazuki

    The idea of mining clathrates is possibly the single most skullfuckingly stupid thing I have ever heard out of the mouth of someone not wearing clerical garb…and, honestly, beats out a good deal of that as well.

    Sure, destabilize those precarious, barely-contained deposits of greenhouse gas a dozen times more powerful than CO2. Start a positive feedback loop until all of it is outgassed in one gigantic belch. Heck, there’s precedent for it, it’s happened before.

    Last time it only caused the Great Dying at the Permian-Triassic boundary.

    This may be the final proof needed that the human race is doomed.

  15. 15
    bittys

    Well, I came here with the intention of asking “why” it was such a bad idea, only to discover it nicely covered in the previous comments.

    Thanks folks :)

  16. 16
    xieyali27

    Anything to keep from admitting that shutting down the nuclear plants cold turkey is a remarkably bad, if not impossible, idea. I live in Japan and its a very common talking point to be anti-nuclear everything. Its quite understandable, having had some atrocities, and disasters happen because of nuclear technology. However, Japan is very susceptible to climate change, and currently they purchase quite a lot of natural gas from the US, which naturally is only exacerbating the problem. If the government were to increase the consumption level and shut down the existing reactors completely, that be horrible for climate change not mention the economy as well, being so completely dependent on import for energy. I can understand the opinions by the anti-nuclear movement, but I cannot be completely anti-nuclear.

  17. 17
    Alexandra

    An awesome novel by Frank Schatzing has the destabilization of methane hydrates as a main theme. It came out in Germany in 2004 (Der Schwarm) and will apparently be made into a movie. If the book is well researched, the idea of mining the hydrates is exceptionally stupid.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Swarm_%28novel%29

  18. 18
    OldEd

    I just STRUCK me… Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Methani Cola…

    What do we have here… a new carbonated soft drink?????

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