August 10, 2017

Snapshot on Sustainability: Methane Seeps

by Stacy Sinclair

From July 30-August 5 I had the unique opportunity to be an Ambassador aboard the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus, a 211 foot-long research vessel currently working along the eastern Pacific Ocean. The goal is to better understand the unknown with a focus on the deep ocean and the organisms that live there. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank AltaSea and the Ocean Education Trust for funding my participation in this expedition.

E/V Nautilus. Photo courtesy of OET / Nautilus Live

For my leg of the journey, the main focus was examining the organisms that live in and around methane seeps off Point Dume. In preparation for the trip started researching methane and read stories of ships sinking and people dying from lack of oxygen when methane reservoirs “burped” bubbles into the water column. Could this be happening off our coast?

Dr. Peter Girguis from Harvard University, was the lead scientist and this expedition was aimed at visiting a few of the over 800 seeps now sitting just off our Pacific coast. In his previous expedition, Pete used Nautilus’ multi-beam sonar to map the seafloor at high enough resolution to identify potential seeps. Gas from the seeps show up on sonar making them easier to find then ever before. These maps not only contribute to our understanding of geology, oceanography, and energy resources, but could also be used for enhanced navigation and national defense.

This year, using this data, the team took the ship’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), Argus and Hercules, to a selection of these seep sites to retrieve samples for study. A couple of things to understand. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can be formed geologically or biologically and is far more impactful on our atmosphere than carbon dioxide, yet has a much shorter half-life.  The two types of methane have different ionic signatures and can therefore be distinguished by using a measuring probe. Geologic methane is often found where oil forms, in underground reservoirs, and are often found in a solid, frozen state. Should temperatures rise, this methane can change into a gas and be released through the water column and into the atmosphere, creating all kinds of mischief. Kept underground, this reservoir is a safe location of methane storage.

We may hear about biologic methane in the form of cow farts and burps, as the largest emitter of methane in California are our happy cows (Yup, that’s a thing).  In the deep ocean – and I’m talking over 700m (or more than 2 miles) under the water’s surface –there are sub-surface bacteria who create methane as a waste product from their biologic processes, living in a chemosynthetic (versus photosynthetic) world. Sitting on top of the seafloor are other species of bacteria that eat the methane, emitting sulfur as their waste product.  According to Pete, these colonial, bacterial mats are home to a variety of species of microbial bacteria living together. The seeps off Point Dume span the size of about a dozen football fields and harbor more biomass than the same area of a rainforest. Yet, scientists haven’t been able to culture these organisms in labs, so they have been tough to study. This unique food chain is delicately balanced and not well understood. Admittedly, it’s tough to get down there to see the organisms at work and interacting!

Dr. Peter Girgius with a core sample from a methane chimney collected just off Point Dume. Photo by Stacy Sinclair

To study these sites requires ROVs. There are only a few ROVs around the world whose mission it is to do science.  This system is particularly unique as the Nautilus uses two ROVs in tandem. The Argus and Hercules are unmanned. Argus is attached to the ship via fiber-optic cable, and Hercules is attached to Argus by tether, sending real-time video to the ship where it is then beamed to shore and out to the internet (www.nautiluslive.org) in almost real-time using technology they call telepresence. Argus lies between Nautilus and Hercules. Its job is to be a shock absorber, sitting about 150m from Hercules, absorbing the swells and large motion from above and shedding stadium lights onto Hercules – it’s dark in the deep sea. Hercules has manipulator arms, sampling containers, and fine motion functionality to do the science as operated from the ship above.

launching Hercules. Photo by Stacy Sinclair

I could geek out on the technology as easily as I could focus on the numerous career pathways that have brought an eclectic and amazingly talented team of 48 scientists, engineers and educators together. Yet, in this series on sustainability, I’m mostly interested in what we can learn about the natural methane reservoirs sitting within view of our coast and thinking about what could happen if the temperature, pressure, or health of our ocean waters changes. What if the microorganisms who make methane increase production or if those who consume it reduce productivity? What if the reverse happens? What could cause such events and is there anything we can do about it?

I don’t like to partake in doomsday predictions, but rather find opportunities and hope in what happens when we better understand the world we live in. The work that Dr. Girgius is doing is vital to this understanding, if not a bit smelly. Dives take hours and the few samples brought to the surface are meticulously handled.

Scientists have always depended on an artistic lens to communicate findings. In an age of real-time video and photography, it might be surprising that his elite team includes an artist, but Lily Simonson’s work on the deep sea transcends documentation, communicating these unreachable worlds to the rest of us in ways that inspire.

Artist Lily Simonson. Photo by OET / Nautilus Live

Isn’t that what we are doing in green buildings? Rather than telling people why green buildings are needed, we create them and transform our city by example, providing theories in action, demonstrating solutions. We inspire the next architect, designer and engineer to create a more beautiful as well as efficient structure that keeps pushing the envelope of what is possible.

We are all explorers.  What paradigm are you shifting? Please join the conversation by contacting me directly at stacy.sinclair@me.com or leaving your thoughts here. Thank you to those aboard the Nautilus whose ideas, innovations and unique perspectives are captured above.

Stacy Sinclair is an accomplished educator and author. She is partnering with USGBC-LA to explore perspectives that drive decision-making on issues related to sustainability and resilience.

 

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