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the hydrate hypothesis

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Hydrates and microbes

Scientists have only recently discovered that hydrates support rich and diverse microbial life. Some consume methane, others release it as a metabolic by-product.

_39084019_meth_geomar_203.jpg Don't try this at home: Water drips away from the burning methane (Image by Geomar)

"These gas hydrates are really the food and faeces of deep-Earth microbes," said Charles Paull, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, who believes the bugs are some of the "same critters" that feed on hydrothermal vents.

And they protect land critters as well.

"They sit there like a filter on the sea floor and retain as much of the methane as they can," said Erwin Suess from the Geomar Research Centre in Germany.

"If you took this filter away, that methane would escape into the ocean, then of course, into the atmosphere."

Highly pressurised drilling devices have only recently allowed scientists to bring the delicate hydrate structures to the ocean's surface.

Party trick

They have to work quickly - the hydrate chunks, which resemble crystallized snow and smoke like dry ice, deteriorate rapidly once they are brought to the surface.

As they melt, they release methane gas. For amusement, scientists can hold burning hydrate in their palms while the remaining water drips down their hands.

First time analysis of still-frozen samples has allowed them to discover bubbles of free methane gas trapped within the solid hydrate.

"This is not supposed to happen," said Dr Suess. "Methane, when combined with high pressure and water, should be converted to gas hydrate."

He adds that the discovery of free gas may have implications for the overall stability of the hydrate system. The bubbles make the hydrate more porous, and might make it easier for the methane gas to escape.






                                               Look at the flowers

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