EarthWords is an on-going series in which we shed some light on the complicated, often difficult-to-pronounce language of science. Think of us as your terminology tour-guides, and meet us back here every week for a new word!
The EarthWord: Gas Hydrate
Here’s a riddle: when can ice burn? When it’s a gas hydrate! Gas hydrate is a naturally-occurring, ice-like form of methane and water that is stable within a narrow range of pressure and temperature conditions. These conditions are mostly found in undersea sediments at water depths greater than 1000 to 1650 ft and in and beneath permafrost (permanently frozen ground) at high latitudes.
Gas comes from the Greek word khaos, meaning “empty space.” It was first coined by Flemish chemist J.B. van Helmont to refer to vapors. Hydrate, meanwhile, comes from the Greek hydor, meaning “water.” It was first used by French chemist Joseph-Louis Proust to refer to a combination of water and another chemical.
Use/Significance in the Earth Science Community:
Gas hydrate, especially the version that contains methane, is of great interest to both climate and energy science.
On a global scale, gas hydrate deposits store enormous amounts of methane at relatively shallow depths, making them particularly susceptible to the changes in temperature that accompany climate change. Methane itself is also a potent greenhouse gas, and some researchers have suggested that methane released by the breakdown of gas hydrate during past climate events may have exacerbated global warming.
In addition, the amount of methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, within the world’s gas hydrate accumulations is estimated to greatly exceed the volume of all known conventional natural gas resources.
The USGS Gas Hydrates Project focuses on gas hydrates in the natural environment and seeks to advance understanding of the potential of gas hydrates as an energy resource; the role of gas hydrates in climate change, as well as their susceptibility to climate change; and gas hydrates and the stability of submarine slopes.
The Hydrate Pressure Core Analysis Laboratory (HyPrCAL) is the newest USGS Gas Hydrates Project facility and supports some of the Project’s energy research at the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center. HyPrCAL was the first facility in the U.S. solely designed for and dedicated to the analysis of pressure cores.
In 2017, USGS and the University of Rochester released an interpretive review of all published literature regarding the interactions of climate and methane hydrates, and concluded that the risk of massive methane releases to the atmosphere due to gas hydrate breakdown was small.
In 2016, USGS participated in an announcement of a potentially producible deposit of gas hydrate in the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal.
Hungry for some science, but you don’t have time for a full-course research plate? Then check out USGS Science Snippets, our snack-sized science series that focuses on the fun, weird, and fascinating stories of USGS science.