Methane plumes were recently found in vast numbers off the Atlantic coast during a recent survey, overhauling previously held notions about what's under the ocean floor.
"It was a surprise to find these features," said lead study author Adam Skarke, a geologist at Mississippi State University. His team's findings were published Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience, The Huffington Post reported
. "It was unexpected because many of the common things associated with methane gas do not exist on the Atlantic margin."
About 570 so-called methane seeps were found by multibeam sonar and video gathered by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration from 2011 to 2013. Most were found to be between 800 and 2,000 feet deep. The number of plumes found is surprising, given that, previously, only three natural gas seeps had been identified off the Atlantic coast.
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According to NBC News
, Skarke said that many of the plumes, which often resemble streams of tiny bubbles rising off the seafloor, are likely caused by microbes — which digest ocean matter and release methane in the process. Because of this, there's not a good indication that the methane plumes point to a great reserve of fossil fuel beneath the ocean floor.
"We have no evidence to suggest this material would be a recoverable resource," said Skarke. "There is no evidence whatsoever that there are conventional deep-seated oil and gas reservoirs underneath the Atlantic margin."
On the other hand, the methane seeps signal a new dawn in oceanography.
"We're setting the stage for a decade of discovery," said the study's co-author Carolyn Ruppel, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey gas hydrates project in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The scientists suspect that the majority of the methane dissolves into the ocean instead of reaching the surface, meaning that it likely doesn't add to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It does add to the total carbon accumulation in the ocean, however, but not by much.
"It's not a huge number, but it's an important number for us to know," Ruppel said.
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