This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Friday, June 4, 2010

The BP Well Operation and Their Problem with 'ice' Clogging

Image source: unknown

British Petroleum engineers have successfully installed a cover on the leaking well and are trying to siphon oil to surface ships.  They have been proceeding cautiously because their previous attempt with this procedure got clogged with a nasty form of ice called "methane hydrate" or "methane clathrate".

Water ice is capable of absorbing an amazing amount of some gases into its structure in "cages".  A typical clathrate cage is shown in the inset of this image of a methane clathrate burning.  Yes, you can set ice on fire!. The gas burns off leaving the ice structures behind. The gas molecules are stored in cages of H2O molecules, and it's quite amazing how much gas can be stored in these cages.

Clathrates are a major reservoirs of natural gas globally, as shown by the map of clathrate deposits.  The dissociation of this weird form of ice has been implicated in everything from the disappearance of ships in the Bermuda Triangle to sudden climate change.  It's been proposed that sudden "burps" of methane gases from clathrates in the Bermuda Triangle have changed the density of the water column so that ships that were floating on the water suddenly found themselves floating on "gassy water" and lost buoyancy, sinking to the bottom. (One thing nice about this blog is that I don't have to provide rigorous referencing!!)  55 million years ago, the Paleocene/Eocene boundary, there was a dramatic climate change that some have argued was due to a sudden methane influx into the atmosphere due to decomposition of clathrates.  The cause of decomposition is unknown, but theories relevant to the current climate crisis are abundant.  I found this article by Galvin Schmidt to be a thoughtful analysis.

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