Methane is a highly combustible greenhouse gas. The naturally occurring chemical compound can be found in the earth's atmosphere, crust, and ocean floors. In addition, methane is a byproduct of digestion, expelled both by living and decaying organic matter. It is odorless and tasteless, and thereby difficult for humans to naturally detect.
One of the main uses of methane is as a fuel. Since it is abundant on earth and highly combustible, it is an effective source of energy. It is transported in pipelines, often underneath the ocean's surface.
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Known as a greenhouse gas, methane traps heat in the earth's atmosphere. This can cause problems such as global warming. The greenhouse gas levels for methane is 25 compared to carbon-dioxide for a 100-year time period. This means that methane raises temperatures 25 times more than an equal amount of carbon-dioxide in a 100-year time period.
Methane leaks in the oceans and the atmosphere are problematic. Although it is necessary as part of the natural landscape, methane is an asphyxiant and depletes oxygen in enclosed areas. High concentrations found in sea water consume the oxygen needed for ocean life.
Due to its oxygen consumption, high combustibility and low detectability, methane can be extremely dangerous. During the gulf oil spill, excessive amounts of methane have leaked into the ocean water and the earth's atmosphere.
Almost one million times the normal levels of methane have been found in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists believe it could create a dead zone in the area, meaning that no living organisms can survive there. The US Geological Survey estimates that with every barrel of oil spilled by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, 2,900 cubit feet of methane gas is released into the gulf.
Text by Jessica Leader
(Photo from Wikipedia)