Nine months after BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, a new report in the preeminent journal Science weighs in on the missing methane. The fate of this gas comprises one of the more intriguing scientific riddles surrounding the blowout.
So how much methane blew along with 4.1 to 4.4 million gallons of oil? A lot more. Somewhere between 9.14 billion and 10 billion moles (molecular weight expressed in grams)—about as much as is naturally released annually from the Black Sea, a very gassy place.
Concerns about BP's ginormous methane belch were twofold:
The answer suggested in this paper could be hugely significant. And not just for the future of the Gulf, but globally too, since our warming world pretty much guarantees we'll see more methane released from thawing clathrates under the seafloor and in permafrost.
As I wrote in The BP Cover-Up, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was one of the biggest baddest field experiments of all time. So here's some of what we've learned so far, highlights of the Science paper:
If these results holds true—still an "if"—then this is unusually encouraging news for our warming world:
We suggest that a vigorous deepwater bacterial bloom respired nearly all the released methane within this time... Our work suggests by analogy that large-scale [methane] release to the deep ocean from gas hydrates or other natural sources may foster a rapid methanotrophic response leading to complete oxidation of [methane] to [carbon dioxide] within a matter of months. Thus, aerobic methanotrophic bacterial communities may act as a dynamic biofilter that responds rapidly to large-scale methane inputs into the deep ocean.