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Gas hydrates are naturally-occuring ice-like crystals that form at high pressure and low temperature in marine sediments at water depths greater than 300m whenever there is sufficient methane and pore water. Gas hydrates are now known to be widespread around the world and are often underlain by potentially vast fields of free gas. Together the gas hydrate and underlying free gas reservoirs comprise almost half of the Earth's organic carbon.

In the Arctic, gas hydrate is widespread, trapped within marine sediments and permafrost. The polar regions of the Earth are highly sensitive to the effects of global change, and climatic warming in particular could cause widespread dissociation (breakdown) of gas hydrate and subsequent release of methane - a highly potent greenhouse gas - into the atmosphere.

This project, funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council and carried out as part of the International Polar Year programme, aims to determine how much gas hydrate is present in marine sediments in the Arctic today and how it might be affected by changes in climate in the future. In particular, the project will examine the potential effects of temperature increases in seawater around the Arctic, what effect that might have on gas hydrate - for example, whether it will lead to large-scale release of methane from destabilised gas hydrate - and the subsequent effects on climate should the methane reach the atmosphere. To do this, a team of scientists from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, the University of Birmingham and Royal Holloway University of London will examine modern-day seafloor and sub-seafloor conditions off Svalbard, and will also look at the geological record to determine past changes in climate, particularly at the end of the last glacial maximum.

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