The Explosive Potential of Methane Frozen Beneath Abraham Lake

While this stunning image of frozen Abraham Lake in Alberta, Canada may look like a perfectly tranquil and picturesque postcard scene, something more menacing – and explosive – lurks beneath the surface. The crisp, bluish-white, cotton wool-like formations are actually frozen bubbles of flammable methane gas trapped in the icy manmade lake. As spring sets in and the lake thaws, the bubbles break free and rise to the top. And when the ice cracks, the bubbles escape and vanish into the atmosphere.

The methane in the lake is created when bacteria decomposes organic matter in the water. This organic matter includes plants, leaves, trees and also animals that have died and fallen into the lake. The matter sinks to the bottom, where bacteria begin to break it all down, producing methane in the process.

On top of this, manmade lakes and reservoirs are created by flooding dry land – such that the water covers previously existing vegetation and soil and causes them to decompose. Organic matter from natural ecosystems, farms and sewage systems also gets washed into these bodies of water, increasing decomposition rates.

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When Abraham Lake is frozen, much older methane from deep beneath the Earth’s crust and ancient oceans remains trapped at the bottom of the lake as a white rock substance known as methane hydrate. As the lake starts to warm up, the methane escapes and comes to the surface. Combined with the methane from decomposition, this creates the amazing-looking frozen columns seen in these photographs.

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This doesn’t just happen in Abraham Lake, either; methane forms in millions of water bodies around the Arctic region as well. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has 20 times the effect on climate change than the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe. Unless, that is, it is burned first.

To prove that the odorless and colorless gas released from the frozen lakes is methane, ecologists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks bravely lit some of the volatile emissions on an Alaskan lake – and with some pretty dramatic results. To do this, the researchers poured warm water onto the ice and then used a digging tool to create a hole, before leaning over the hole with a lighter. The results were quite explosive – like a fire breather performing from beneath the ice.

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Emissions of methane are on the increase. Ecologist Katey Walter Anthony of the University of Alaska Fairbanks warns, “When we look at how much carbon is in permafrost still frozen and the potential for that permafrost to thaw in the future, we estimate that more than 10 times the amount of methane that’s right now in the atmosphere will come out of these lakes.”

Although methane seeping from lakes is one thing, it was once thought that permafrost in cold seas was keeping a lot of the gas trapped – yet it appears that this is no longer the case. In a 2010 National Geographic article, University of Alaska Fairbanks biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova explained that, in recent years, “The permafrost is actually failing in its ability to preserve this leakage.” According to Shakhova and her colleagues, around eight million tons of methane a year is emitted into the air from the Arctic Ocean’s East Siberia Sea alone, which brings with it the threat of increased global warming.

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When you think about how potent and volatile methane is as a gas, and you consider the fact that massive half-mile-wide bubbles were found in the Arctic Ocean a few years ago, you realize just how serious and potentially dangerous a situation this could be. Still, it’s not all bad.

In early 2013, Japan became the first country to successfully extract natural frozen gas from deposits of icy methane hydrate buried in the ocean floor. According to experts, the amount of carbon stored in these types of gas deposits across the globe is staggering, and the idea of tapping into this newfound energy reserve could mean big things for countries with scant energy resources.

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One similar methane extraction project is already taking place in Lake Kivu in Rwanda, where around 72 billion cubic yards of methane gas was discovered deep underwater. The lake is one of a trio of “exploding lakes” identified on Earth, and while it poses a threat to the surrounding environment and populace, if tapped it could also be an energy source – and offer a significant economic boost – for the region.

Local company KivuWatt uses a barge platform to extract the gas, before separating it, purifying it and sending it to gas turbines situated onshore through a pipeline system installed under the water. This project is expected to multiply the energy-generating capabilities of Rwanda by up to 20 and allow the country to sell electricity to its neighbors.

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Lake Kivu may seem a far cry from Alberta’s Abraham Lake, but the shared issue of methane emissions puts things in a new light, with calamity – or opportunity – bubbling below the surface.

Thanks go out to Darwin Wiggett and Chip Phillips for kind permission to use the images included in this article. Many of the techniques used on Chip Phillips’ images are demonstrated in the photographer’s Image Editing videos, available here; and more of his work can be seen on his website.

And for those who want to know where to go and how to get to Abraham Lake, click here.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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