Is the extent of glaciation limited by marine gas-hydrates?



Methane may have been released to the atmosphere during the Quaternary from Arctic shelf gas-hydrates as a result of thermal decomposition caused by climatic warming and rising sea-level; this release of methane (a greenhouse gas) may represent a positive feedback on global warming [Revelle, 1983; Kvenvolden, 1988a; Nisbet, 1990]. We consider the response to sea-level changes by the immense amount of gas-hydrate that exists in continental rise sediments, and suggest that the reverse situation may apply—that release of methane trapped in the deep-sea sediments as gas-hydrates may provide a negative feedback to advancing glaciation. Methane is likely to be released from deep-sea gas-hydrates as sea-level falls because methane gas-hydrates decompose with pressure decrease. Methane would be released to sediment pore space at shallow sub-bottom depths (100's of meters beneath the seafloor, commonly at water depths of 500 to 4,000 m) producing zones of markedly decreased sediment strength, leading to slumping [Carpenter, 1981; Kayen, 1988] and abrupt release of the gas. Methane is likely to be released to the atmosphere in spikes that become larger and more frequent as glaciation progresses. Because addition of methane to the atmosphere warms the planet, this process provides a negative feedback to glaciation, and could trigger deglaciation.