Devastating hurricanes, like the Catrina which hir the United States from the Mexican Gulf in the latter half of 2005, turbulent floods in Europe and murderous drought in the Southern Hemisphere prove beyond any shade of a doubt that the climate of our planet is changing. According to numerous forecasts such natural disasters are more to come until we learn how to reduce the volumes of hothouse gases discharges-of carbon dioxide and methane*. The levels of the latter in the atmosphere have practically doubled during the past century. This causes mounting concern among specialists who want to make sure whether or not we are to blame for the mounting volumes of "marsh gases" in the atmosphere and how and in what amounts the gas get into the air and from which other sources? Working on these and other associated problems are scientists of the Gasochemistry Laboratory of the Pacific Oceanological Institute named after V. Ilyichev (TOI) of the RAS Far Eastern Branch. A report on these studies has been published by A. Kulikova in the newspaper DV Ucheny (Far Eastern Scientist).
So, what is methane after all? This is gas without color or smell-simple organic compound, saturated with hydrocarbon of the aliphatic range. It is released in the oil desposists (100 mn tons annually), plenting of rice (50 mn), burning of wastes (30 mn), are from dump sites (30 mn) or excites as bubbles from waste-waters 20 mn). Another 80 mn tons a year gets into the atmosphere from herds of cattle, which, incidentally, is comparable with the volumes of exhausts of all automobiles of the world. Finally, some 160 mn tons of methane are produced by natural processes mainly taking place in marshlands.
The situation is most alarming in the northern latitudes, because the growing volumes of this gas exceed its consumption. Summer-time warmings of frenon soil increase the volumes of natural consumption of this gas. This being so, the global, warming described by many scientists** will have the greatest impact on the northern regions. According to expert assessments, the reserves of methane exceed by far the resources of oil, coal and natural gas taken together. That means that while being the likely cause of a global ecological catastrophy, it can be a panacea from the energy crisis looming in a not too distant future.
That is why TOI scientists are so actively investigating methane fields in the atmosphere, water, soil and natural precipitation. What are the benefits of these studies? First of all they help discover deposits of hydrocarbons. Formed over such deposits are what they call anomalous fields of "side" gases of which the "marsh gas" is the basis.
* See: N. Yelansky, "Monitoring of Atmosphere: Russian Contribution", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2004. - Ed.
** See: Yu. Israel, "Threat of Climatic Catastrophe?", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2004. - Ed.
In the beginning this approach was tested on dry land and later on it helped in prospecting for oil and gas on the Sakhalin shelf.
With its help geophysicists determined the possible oil-and-gas bearing structures, and geochemists - whether or not they are filled with the substance of interest to them. Subsequent drillings confirmed more than 80 percent of prognostications.
Another area of research of TOI scientists are studied of gases in regions of coal deposits. There have been many reports about methane explosions in mines, and specialists are keeping up their efforts to cope with this problem, of finding useful applications to this dangerous gas, using it, for example, for heating hothouses and thus reducing the ecological stresses on the environment.
But the most important area of studies by specialists of the Laboratory of Gasochemistry are studies of global changes of the climate. We all know that rising levels of methane in the earth atmosphere (by about 1 percent a year) can cause sharp warming.
Scientists are keeping in the focus of their attention the arctic and Far Eastern seas, like the Okhotsk Sea for example. Over the past seven years TOI scientists have been working on the implementation of the Russian-German KOMEKS Project in cooperation with colleagues from the GEOMAR Research Center in Kiel. In winter they discovered benthic methane discharges on the Sakhalin north-eastern shelf and coastal slopes of the Sea of Okhotsk. In spring, when ice is thawing, vast dischanges of gas are observed there. Specialists are now studying this process and its impact on changes of the global climate.
In fact studies within this project are nearing completion. Experts have drawn the necessary conclusions which have also interested scientists from Japan and South Korea. They are working on their own program-CHAOS-Carbon Hydrate Accumulation in the Okhotsk Sea-which provides for international expeditions in the Okhotsk Sea. TOI scientists are participation in these studies, investigating the conditions of location and volumes of methane discharged into the atmosphere and its impact on the environment and marine biota.
In recent time the gas-chemistry laboratory have been studying the processes of formation and decomposition of methanhydrate. The substance looks like grey brittle ice, which has no smell and burns in a yellow-blue flame. This ice belongs to what are called "box" compounds in which there appear no chemical bonds between the molecules of water and methane. The latter is located in the cavities of the crystal lattice of ice. One cubic meter of methanchydrate contains 164 cubic meters of gas. Its sources can include the biological processes of decomposition of vegetable and animal remains in bottom desposits of rivers and oceans. According to another version, the Earth, formed from a protoplanetary cloud, included considerable volumes of methane. It is now being discharge in the magma in volcanic eruptions and from the zones of fractures between continental and oceanic plates. These are other sources of gas produce accumulations of methanchydrate.
Studies of what we call the gasogeochemical fields of the natural layers of the seas and oceans make it possible to prognosticate earthquakes. Constant studies of these fields make it possible to determine the degree of seismic stability of different regions of the planet.
Newspaper DV UCHENY (Far Eastern Scientist), No. 15, 2005
Prepared by Ya. SIBIRTSEV
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