ScienceDaily (Nov. 9, 2011) — The release of massive amounts of carbon from methane hydrate frozen under the seafloor 56 million years ago has been linked to the greatest change in global climate since a dinosaur-killing asteroid presumably hit Earth 9 million years earlier. New calculations by researchers at Rice University show that this long-controversial scenario is quite possible.
Nobody knows for sure what started the incident, but there's no doubt Earth's temperature rose by as much as 6 degrees Celsius [10.8 degrees Fahrenheit]. That affected the planet for up to 150,000 years, until excess carbon in the oceans and atmosphere was reabsorbed into sediment.
Earth's ecosystem changed and many species went extinct during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 56 million years ago, when at least 2,500 gigatonnes of carbon, eventually in the form of carbon dioxide, were released into the ocean and atmosphere. (The era is described in great detail in a recent National Geographic feature.)
A new report by Rice scientists in Nature Geoscience suggests that at the time, even though methane-containing gas hydrates -- the "ice that burns" -- occupied only a small zone of sediment under the seabed before the PETM, there could have been as much stored then as there is now.
This is a concern to those who believe the continued burning of fossil fuels by humans could someday trigger another feedback loop that disturbs the stability of methane hydrate under the ocean and in permafrost; this change could warm the atmosphere and prompt the release of large amounts of methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Some who study the PETM blame the worldwide burning of peat, volcanic activity or a massive asteroid strike as the source of the carbon, "but there's no crater, or any soot or evidence of the burning of peat," said Gerald Dickens, a Rice professor of Earth science and an author of the study, who thinks the new paper bolsters the argument for hydrates.