Andre H. recently redeemed his student rewards card for a copy of ‘Ice and Flame’, a rollicking tale in which the Flash is pitted against two DC Universe evildoers: Captain Cold and Heatwave. If memory serves, the two villains intend to heat the seabed to trigger the release of teratons of natural gas into the atmosphere. Said gas will then be spectacularly combusted in one enormous explosion. Kaboom!
If the premise sounds farfetched, then you’ll likely be surprised to learn that an enormous amount of methane actually is present on and beneath areas of the seafloor across the Earth’s oceans. In addition to methane in solid, icy chunks and drifts of methane clathrates, experts like the MBARI ocean chemist quoted in the afore-linked Nature article maintain that, in order for such deposits to exist, additional methane must present all around them, dissolved in the water in the surrounding mud and ooze.
These stores of natural gas are (mostly) trapped deep beneath the waves by a combination of low temperatures and high pressures, but some is always bubbling up here and there and this continuous, low-level release has an upside. Bacteria exist which subsist on methane. These microorganisms, besides colonizing the methane-leaking spots directly, can exist symbiotically within specialized species of mussel, tube worm, and clam. That’s how low-temperature counterparts to the better-known hydrothermal vent communities are able to arise. If you’d like to know more about such undersea oases, check out the NOAA site about cold seeps.
That being said, the rapid release of a significant amount of deep-sea methane on a global scale (Heatwave and Captain Cold’s objective in the story) would be an altogether different matter. Researchers have identified multiple possible triggers for such an event, including significant increases in deep-sea temperatures (concerning to us today) and drops in sea level (e.g. during a severe ice age). Mega-explosions wouldn’t be in the cards but the results could nevertheless be dire indeed. If you’d like to know more about this particular doomsday scenario, have a gander at Wikipedia’s article on the clathrate gun hypothesis.
Where are we going with all of this? What’s the takeaway for a parent reading this post? One obvious observation would be that adults ought to think twice before dismissing a piece of flashy-looking, action-packed kidlit. Tales which might seem like brain candy, such as one in which the Flash saves us all from a huge fart-gas explosion, may contain jumping-off points for meaningful learning experiences.
Incidentally, the EV Nautilus team has released a number of videos of ROV exploration of deep-sea methane seeps. Here are three clips which may be of interest: Imaging and Sampling at Seep Sites, Ecology of a Seep Site, and Explosive Methane Burst and Bubble Streams.