In Bubbly Gulch of Vancouver Island, bathing crabs hint at vast potential of an untapped fuel

Deep beneath the ocean surface, in Bubbly Gulch off Vancouver Island, a crab doing an inadvertent backflip has given scientists new information about the world’s largest source of untapped fossil energy.

The crab was taking a Jacuzzi-style bath in bubbles of methane gas percolating from the ocean floor in Barkley Canyon when its muddy face was caught by cameras on Wally the Crawler, NEPTUNE Canada’s undersea robot.

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The methane bubbles — which are lighter than water — stuck under the crab’s shell, upsetting its balance and fascinating NEPTUNE scientists looking at the changing rates of bubbles and whether a warming ocean is affecting the ice-encased gas hydrates.

“This is cutting edge. There’s no other place in the world where they are monitoring hydrates like we do,” said Kate Moran, president of Oceans Network Canada, which manages the University of Victoria-led NEPTUNE underwater laboratory.

Gas hydrates, structures formed from a mixture of water and gas, have long interested scientists and energy companies, but they are stable only at high pressure or low temperature.

“If you are quick enough and put a match to it, it burns in your hand,” said NEPTUNE gas hydrates researcher Martin Scherwath.

This month, Japan, searching for alternatives to nuclear power and imported energy, upped the ante by announcing it has successfully extracted natural gas from frozen methane hydrates.

Large quantities of the hydrates are known to exist in permafrost, in the Cascadia continental shelf off B.C., near New Zealand and off the U.S. east coast. Several countries are looking for ways to exploit the deposits, Moran said.

“But it would be a huge challenge to extract it as a resource, especially off Vancouver Island,” she said.

Even if it were possible to mine hydrates in the inhospitable, rocky environment, an offshore drilling ban has been in effect in B.C. since 1972.

A recent article in Scientific American also raises concerns, questioning whether hydrates would “cook the climate” if developed on a significant scale.

Moran doubts the cook-the-climate theory, but is interested in the effect of removing hydrates and replacing them with sediment and whether that could cause underwater slides or even a tsunami.

“We are trying to understand the mound formations. We are watching the seafloor moving up and down over time,” she said.

Some answers may come from an expedition in May, when Moran will take an instrument she has designed herself to Bull’s Eye Vent in Bubbly Gulch in hopes of monitoring changes in the sub-seafloor. Another expedition researching gas hydrates in the same area will take place in June.To watch video of the methane crab and bubbles at Bubbly Gulch go to:
http://vimeo.com/43956264
http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SrmNf9JBRqU

jlavoie@timescolonist.com.

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