Sea-floor drilling tool could unlock mysteries of gas hydrates

Later this month, Kate Moran will send her million-dollar baby to the bottom of the ocean.

After nine years of design work, funding applications, tests and more tests, a scientific instrument that Moran invented will be pushed into the sediment 300 metres below the sea floor, 1,250 metres below sea level.

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“We’re going to Bullseye Vent, where gas hydrates are coming out of the water column,” Moran, president of the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada, said Friday as she reacquainted herself with equipment on the research drill vessel JOIDES Resolution, now tied up at Ogden Point.

Information collected by the seafloor observatory equipment, known as the SCIMPI, could be vital for understanding gas hydrates, the methane gas that bubbles up from the ocean floor.

Gas hydrates, formed from a mixture of water and gas, are the world’s largest source of untapped fossil energy, but they are also unstable and could release large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. “All this carbon is locked up in methane hydrates and they are stable at high pressure and low temperatures. With shallow water or a temperature change, they can be released into the atmosphere,” Moran said.

The equipment was developed with funding from the international Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, and has nine sensor modules to measure temperature, pressure and resistance.

“We drop the drill bit so we can lower SCIMPI down the drill hole and then pull the pipe up and leave SCIMPI in the hole,” Moran said.

Information will be collected for the first two years with a command module providing power. Moran hopes it will then be connected to the nearby NEPTUNE fibre-optic cable observatory network.

Previously, scientists had to use an instrument that drilled into solid rock, rather than sediment, which was considerably more expensive to operate. One of the rock instruments will also be installed at a different site during the expedition.

SCIMPI will produce information on the fluids that are driving the release of gas into the ocean.

Often, the movement is associated with active earthquake areas and, with the Juan de Fuca plate subducting under the North American plate, the pressure could be squeezing the sediment and driving out the gases, Moran said.

“[SCIMPI] will detect change that moves across the sediment. We’re trying to understand the dynamics of gas hydrates,” she said.

The experiments would not be possible without the use of the specialized equipment on board the JOIDES Resolution, which is 143 metres long, with a 66-metre derrick, and has the ability to drill through rock as if it were butter.

Moran is familiar with the ship, which has been used for scientific drilling since 1982. She has taken part in nine expeditions on JOIDES and served for two years as the Ocean Drilling Program director, based in Washington D.C.

With laboratories of all types on board and equipment designed for studying the core of the Earth, revealing details of climate and seismic activity from past millennia, it’s an exciting place for scientists, Moran said. “It’s like putting all the great laboratories from every university into one location and it’s on a ship.”

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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