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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Scientists eager to drill in the Canadian Arctic's Beaufort Sea for answers about methane

Scientists eager to drill in Arctic waters for answers about methane


Ambitious proposal could fill in big gaps in understanding of climate science


The oil and gas industry is eyeing the energy riches under the Arctic Ocean, but scientists are even keener to start drilling in Canada's polar waters.

They say the Beaufort Sea, in the western Canadian Arctic, holds clues to several environmental mysteries of global significance - chief among them why so much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is now seeping out of the sea floor.

An international team is proposing an ambitious drilling program to extract some answers. Researchers from Canada, the United States, Europe and Korea want to drill a series of wells from the Mackenzie Delta across the Beaufort Sea.

If approved, drilling could begin as early as 2015, the first holes bored into the Canadian Arctic in years.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international outfit that dispatches research ships around the world, has reviewed the preliminary plan and recently asked the scientists to submit a full proposal, says Anne de Vernal. She is an academic at the University of Quebec, Montreal, and heads the committee overseeing Canada's involvement with IODP.

She and her colleagues say the Beaufort is the best place in the Arctic to assess the stability of undersea permafrost and gas deposits and to fill in big gaps in climate science.

They want to drill down through sediments that have rained onto the sea floor over eons, revealing how the Arctic ice has waxed and waned, and into the thick slabs of permafrost and frozen gas beneath the sea floor that have the potential to accelerate global warming.


The drilling operation would also be "a good first step" into Arctic drilling as it would be small-scale compared to what the energy industry envisions, says Pierre Francus, at Quebec's scientific research agency.

He is on the executive committee of the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, which is considering backing the project with the IODP.

Although "a lot less risky" than drilling for oil and gas, the proposed scientific drilling would require environmental assessment and approval from federal and Inuvialuit authorities, Francus says.

The shallow waters that fringe the Arctic are among the most dynamic and understudied part of the world's oceans, Scott Dallimore says. He is a geologist with Natural Resources Canada and co-leader of the planned project.

These waters cover continental shelves that run more than three million square kilometres along the northern coasts of North America and Siberia.

Permafrost hundreds of metres thick occurs on the shelves, and has been slowly warming since the end of the last ice age.

As the slabs of permafrost warm, they can destabilize the sea bed, generating underwater landslides that send sediments barrelling down from the continental shelf into the deep ocean.

One landslide, discovered by Natural Resources Canada scientists in the Beaufort, left more than 200 square kilometres of sediments strewn across the deep sea floor.


More worrisome to many observers is the massive store of methane sitting beneath the permafrost in the form of gas hydrates.

The gas has been trapped under the sea for thousands of years, but there is mounting concern - and evidence - that it is leaking out as the climate warms.

In the past few years, dramatic plumes of the methane have been spotted by teams surveying waters off Siberia. A Canada-U.S. team has also found "extensive free gas release" on the Beaufort Shelf, which is pock-marked with holes the escaping gas leaves behind.

At one spot about 50 metres below the surface, the team's remotely operated vehicle found gas "vigorously and continuously" bubbling out of a sea mound, kicking up clouds of sediments.

The chemical signature of the gas seeping out from the Beaufort Sea floor indicates much of it is bubbling up through cracks and gaps in the permafrost that are liberating methane that has been locked under the sea for at least 50,000 years, Dallimore and his colleagues report.

How much methane is entering the atmosphere, and whether the rate is increasing as Arctic ice retreats and the climate warms, is not known. But scientists say it is important to find out because methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The permafrost and vast hydrate deposits in the shallow waters of the Arctic pose "a potentially significant geohazard and may release vast amounts of methane to the atmosphere," geologist Matt O'Regan, at Cardiff University in Britain, says in a report outlining the "urgent need" for the scientific drilling.

The plan is to drill as many as 10 wells up to 650 metres deep, from the Mackenzie Delta to several hundred kilometres offshore to where the Beaufort Shelf drops into the deep waters of the Canada Basin.

Along with assessing the degrading permafrost and escaping gas, the researchers say the drilling could answer questions about climatic changes in the past.


European scientists on the team are keen to solve the mystery of why the Northern Hemisphere abruptly cooled off about 12,800 years ago.

Many believe a deluge of melt water from North America's massive glaciers at the end of the last ice age swept down the Mackenzie River and was responsible for the sudden cold snap, known as the Younger Dryas, that lasted about 1,200 years.

The scientists say sediments on the floor of the Beaufort could provide proof.

The sediments could also reveal how polar ice has come and gone over the ages, and help scientists refine predictions of how the Arctic, and global climate, might behave in future.

"We do not know when the pack ice developed in the Arctic Ocean," say de Vernal, who notes the Beaufort is the "perfect" place to find out.

"This is one of the rare places in the Arctic where the answer is there," says de Vernal. "We know it is there, but we have to drill and drill at the right place."

This fall, Natural Resources Canada's Scott Dallimore plans to head to the Beaufort with U.S. and Korean scientists to start surveying for drill sites.

They intend to return in 2013 with Korea's state-of-the-art icebreaker, the Araon, to complete the survey.

The detailed project plan will then be submitted and reviewed by the inter-national drilling programs, which are funded by governments around the world, and the researchers hope drilling can start in 2015.

De Vernal is confident the project will eventually proceed.

"It will go ahead," she says, noting that "scientists are stubborn" and will keep pushing until they get the green light.

The international drilling pro-grams would pick up most of the cost, expected to be close to $15 million, but the researchers are game to collaborate with industry.

At a recent workshop on the proposal, they say industry agreed to share data amassed during exploratory drilling operations in the Beaufort in the 1970s and 80s.

"It's not a case of scientists doing industry's work, more a case of working together to understand these environments," says Dallimore.

1 comment:

Alex Smith said...

There are two possible problems with this proposal:

1. the ultra-Conservative pro-oil Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, has slashed environmental research, and muzzled Canadian climate scientists. He may not approve the drilling project because he is against action, or even research, on climate change. Or...

2. Harper does approve it, but because as this article states it is a "good first step" toward real drilling for gas and oil in the Arctic, which the Prime Minister has been pushing for all along. The science to study the risk of extreme climate change may in fact hasten it's arrival, by getting the public used to drilling in the Arctic.

Either way, we can hardly win. Probably the methane risk outweights the foot-in-the-door risk, but not by much.

Alex Smith, Radio Ecoshock