back to article 'Methanotroph' bacteria feasted on blown BP rig's methane belch

Scientists believe they have solved the mystery over what happened to the hundreds of thousands of tons of methane that belched into the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion last April. According to a study published in Science Xpress, the gas served as a feast for methanotrophs: bacteria able to …


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  1. Pahhh

    Does that mean...

    Does that mean if we kept our cows submerged underwater neck down, we could remove the "potentially" harmful greenhouse gases from farming?

    1. Michael Xion

      Er yes, but

      They'd be dead from drowning so I guess it would work. I think you meant FROM the neck down.

      1. Charles Manning

        From the neck down won't help

        Most of the methane is burped, not farted.

        But worrying about stock seems like carbon accounting bollocks. Ruminant animals in the Serengeti ( wildebeest) are counted as a carbon sink. Cows and sheep in Western countries are counted as a carbon source. Where's the difference? Seems more a case of politics than science.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          @charles Manning

          I think you need to look at the feed used in the two cases. That's the difference.

  2. hvchronic

    Methane, schmethane!

    The complex chemical carnage created by the blowout and BP’s sacrifice of the long-term livability of the Gulf of Mexico for the prospect of keeping its precious wellhead intact has just begun, and is lurking beneath the waves. This video from After the Press explains what is happening, and that BP knew all along that it would:

  3. Thought About IT

    Methane is short lived in the atmosphere.

    So, in what way does this information "upset climate-change assumptions"? You guys are trying to match Fox News for bending a story to fit a preconceived narrative, and it does you no credit.

    1. Galidron


      Are you saying that the register lied when they claimed to be quoting Kessler or that they forced Kessler to say that?

      I think showing that undersea methane leaks might not make it to the atmosphere may alter some climate models. Even if it doesn't significantly change them, the more accurately we can represent climate mechanisms the more accurate our predictions will be. Less error here will help make up for error elsewhere.

  4. MnM
    Jobs Halo

    Bathtime flatulence applications

    How much more relaxing would a relaxing bath pour deux be if neither of you had to hold them in?

    Off to Neal's Yard for a sachet of Methanotroph & Hazelnut Salts.

    Stevie because they just work and starve everything else of oxygen.

  5. ScissorHands

    Data is irrelevant without context

    In places that have regular leaks of oil and gas, like the Gulf o Mexico or the Persian Gulf, there follows, from ecological niches, that metanotrophs would evolve to occupy that niche, staying dormant until an opportunity for feeding (and breeding) arose. This wouldn't happen on the open seas.

    So, SOME methane gas leaks can still contribute to global warming

    1. Alex Rose

      Hypothesis is irrelevant until backed up by empirical data

      Show us the evidence for your hypothesis that "metanotrophs" (sic) only exist in areas with regular leaks of gas and oil or get back under your bridge.

    2. Tom 13

      @ScissorsHands: And yet you wonder why we skeptics

      remark that AGW is a religion, not science. Here's a hint from Galileo: More epicycles won't save your model.

  6. Dr Paul Taylor

    so where has it gone?

    Please can you tell into what form these bacteria have converted the methane? Are they just going to belch it back out again in some other part of the ocean?

    1. thecakeis(not)alie


      CH4 +(2x O2) -->CO2 +(2x H2O )

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        My hat is off to the person that downvoted you, I'm pretty much speechless, all I can manage is:

        Downvoting a chemical reaction, brilliant.

        1. thecakeis(not)alie


          Oh, it's amusing alright. I have at least one anti-fan. Truly died-in-the-wool hates-my-guts type. I suppose it's that part where I try to apply reason and logic to everything, worship at the alters of science, impartiality and objectivity and believe in the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. It pretty much makes me the socio-political inverse of a Tea Party member, some of which have taken a severe dislike.

          So they aren’t downvoting a chemical reaction, they are downvoting me personally. There are all sorts of fairly innocuous comments which aren’t politically, religiously or socially charged which get downvoted simply because it’s me making them. Apparently I logiced so hard I grew a downvoting troll.

          I simply cannot tell you how proud that makes me. It’s like wining at the Internet every single time I post a comment! The best part about the whole thing is that I don’t have to post lies, misinformation, slander, instinctualist/emotionalist nonsense or otherwise troll the readers and denizens of the various fora I take part in. Simply taking the time to research the subjects that interest me, developing a complex and nuanced belief system based on multiple sources of information and then posting my thoughts and insights is enough apparently to earn a cyber-downvote-stalker.

          Every single time something like that occurs, I let out a deep laugh. People who do silly things like downvote a post that simply contains a chemical reaction do all the hard work of proving my points for me. I can only shake my head in wonder at the kinds of ignorance people in this world cling so passionately to.

          IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH is the rallying cry of these people. Down with governments, intellectualism, science, reason and logic! They vote and they scream, riot and parade with their instincts, their emotions and the sense of morality handed down to them by their pastor. They don’t question the world around them, they don’t reason beyond the overwhelming belief system prevalent in the hive-mind with which they associate. It’s spectacular. It’s mind boggling. It’s more than a little bit terrifying.

          It’s also amazing fodder for one of the books I am writing; one that is going quite well, actually. My editor loves it; the internet is a fantastic place to fundamentalism in all of its various forms – whether religious or not.

          @The elephant in the room:

          The release of CO2 – while a greenhouse gas – is actually a remarkably good thing in this case. Methane is hugely more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. It can do a lot of damage in a very short time and is something we have no method of actually coping with. For all the hubbub made by eco-fundamentalists about CO2, it really isn’t “the end of the world.”

          When we as a society do actually start caring about climate change there are some fairly easy ways to deal with CO2. You plant an absolute ****load of trees, grow them largeish and then bury them. CO2 is the one greenhouse gas we actually can cope with, should we ever choose to.

          Methane, OTOH, is completely outside our technological capability to cope with. It doesn’t stick around quite as long as CO2, but it does a lot more harm in the time it is present in the atmosphere. There are far worse things yet than methane, and frankly it is these that we should be concerned about curbing…not CO2. CO2 is a battle the eco-fundamentalists should have saved until much later.

          Curbing our CO2 footprint impinges far too much on the lifestyles of certain people who simply are too self-focused to ever be concerned about it until the effects are right in front of them. Given that we can actually reverse CO2 damage, it would have been a far better choice to save that particular gem until much, much later. In the meantime, we could have focused our efforts on curbing the release of far more dangerous gasses into the atmosphere, and delayed global warming another 50 or so years. Enough time to pretty much run out of most of our easily-obtainable fossil fuels anyways, making the CO2 issue something we’d have to cope with out of necessity anyways.

          Alas, we’re now too far down the rabbit hole to climb back out of it, and so we have a huge socio-political war on our hands: people who understand science and who choose to apply it to the world around them versus people who are terrified of either paying more for their creature comforts or being forced to give them up. All of which are helpfully exacerbated by the ever more fanatical (and ludicrously violent) political imagery used by all sides of pretty much any and every debate going.

          So, long rant short…the CO2 thing, not such a big deal in the long run. Far worse if the methane had escaped. The consumption of all the oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico, OTOH, has proven to be catastrophic.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward


            I also have a couple of people who I suspected were downvoting anything I said (and a couple being openly hostile) so I stopped commenting except anon and the downvotes eased up as did the hostile responses. It's a real shame, but I no longer feel that I can post non-anon on this site and I've been posting here since when you had to send email to the authors of the articles.

            1. thecakeis(not)alie

              I hear ya.

              This is a new nick for me and it is an interesting social experiment. The upvote/downvote pattern is intriguing, especially since I still periodically post under my old nick. The different nicks attract different “haters.” Some people simply cannot let go of their little pet grudges. *shrug* That’s the internet for you. I also spend a lot of time on Ars’ forums and they aren’t that much different. Stupid rivalries, little hatreds and a similarish contingent of people posting from the extremist/fundamentalist corners of every viewpoint.

              There are some hugely different dynamics at play. There is the moderated/unmoderated bit as well as up/downvoting. Lack of (direct) moderation on Ars leads to some absolutely /epic/ flamewars. It also leads to eleventeen squillion people jumping all over anyone who is obviously trolling and tearing their arguments to shreds. There is /sport/ to be made of publicly humiliating the ignorant on the Ars forums that simply can’t exist in a directly moderated environment like El Reg.

              That said, El Reg has the up/downvotes which have rapidly morphed into a semblance of same. Instead of directly refuting the ridiculousness of someone’s arguments with logic, reason and links to good science, we upvote someone or downvote them into oblivion. It leads to an interesting mixture of commenters. Ars Technica has a far greater emphasis on logic, reason and peer reviewed science. El Reg’s commenters are far more passionate and willing to express their passion through comments.

              Additionally, Ars has no “anonymous coward” feature. Indeed, individual post counts are logged with the username of the post in such a fashion as to be readily visible to each person reading the comment. This means that individuals with low post counts are viewed with more suspicion as those with high post counts. Low post counts may be a secondary accounts created by someone simply to troll.

              Because of this, I find that newcomers feel far less welcome on Ars Technica’s forums than here. It can be a hostile environment to the uninitiated. El Reg on the other hand is rarely so standoffish. We can all of us spot a true newbie a mile away, and they are frequently met with a “hi, you must be new here, welcome to El Reg.” (Sometimes sarcastically, but often in a spirit of genuine friendship.)

              You can argue you way out of a corner in Ars. Present your arguments properly, back them up with good science and most importantly, when you are proved wrong by someone with better science than you…admit it! That of course relies on the people involved knowing what they hell they are talking about. There is always for example some denier somewhere who pops in with a bunch of Really Bad Science he found on the internet and tries to convince the entire population of Ars Technica they are wrong because his favourite website said so. We’ve been around that corner a dozen times, and he’ll get chased out.

              On El Reg, the emotional appeals seem to work better. Appeal to emotion and you make a great many friends. Appeal to the wrong emotion at the wrong time and you have earned enemies for life. Now, that isn’t to say there isn’t a strong rational contingent on El is simply to say that they don’t bother with the flame wars and petty fighting here nearly so much as on Ars. On Ars it’s a sport. On El Reg, it’s not worth our time to correct misconceptions. (Moderation lag makes it almost impossible.)

              Overall, it’s a very interesting bit of social dynamics that I have a great deal of time poking at and learning from.

      2. The elephant in the room

        So we are still screwed!

        CO2 = another greenhouse gas

        2x H2O = rising sea level

        -2x O2 = suffocating fish

  7. Jnemo


    As the report also notes, the methane hydrates under the polar ice (the stuff that might cause a problem) are mostly under only about 40 meters of water, meaning that most of it would bubble up to the surface before dissolving in the water (compared to the deep horizon methane which started out a mile under water). That would mean that the methantroph bacteria wouldn't get the chance to have much of an impact on the volume released.

    1. thecakeis(not)alie


      Deepwater Horizon was leaking methane from a tiny hole over a span of weeks. If a shelf of methane cladrates goes, we could be talking about dozens of times the amount of methane released from the Deepwater Horizon incident over several square kilometres within a span of hours.

      No amount of bacteria are going to cope with that. So every useless tool on every forum claiming "this event completely disproves global warming" need to learn some ****ing science.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        Cake wants his disaster movie back!

        This be the "tiny hole" that (we were told) was destroying the Gulf of Mexico?

        1. thecakeis(not)alie


          Both the Permian-Triassic extinction event and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum have been linked to the sudden collapse of shelves of methane clathrates. That has nothing to do with a "disaster movie." (Are there even currently shelves of Methane Clathrates large enough to cause these events currently under our Oceans? I don't know the answer to that.) It does have everything to do with actually learning some science and then using it to learn more about the world around you>

          The tiny hole leaking oil and CH4 into the Gulf of Mexico did unbelievable amounts of harm. It would have been far worse had it either been a significantly larger hole (such as a shelf collapse,) had it been in shallower waters or had it been in colder waters. Any of these factors would have made the consumption of the hydrocarbons significantly harder to cope with.

          Had it been in colder waters (a-la Exxon Valdez) then biological remediation (such as bacteria) simply wouldn’t have been able to cope. (The relevant bacteria work slower when it is colder.) Had it been in shallower waters the hydrocarbons would not have had the chance to mix with the water enough and then you get far worse “birds and fish covered in oil” syndrome than we ever saw with Deepwater Horizon. Lastly, had it been a complete shelf collapse (a-la methane clathrate extinction event) there simply would have been so much methane released in so short a time that absolutely nothing could possibly have coped with it.

          As it stands, even though much (but certainly not all) of the released hydrocarbons were consumed by bacteria, the consumption of these hydrocarbons created a vast hypoxia area within the Gulf of Mexico. In other words: there’s a huge chunk of ocean out there in which the bacteria consumed all the oxygen in order to consume all the hydrocarbons. That means many dead fish. They did not die directly through being suffocated by the oil or the methane, but rather because the things that ate the methane and oil consumed all the oxygen the fish needed to breathe.

          The collapse of a large enough methane clathrate shelf is a planetary mass extinction event. This was quite literally orders of magnitude smaller and thus we have only a localised (to the Gulf of Mexico) extinction event.

          Of course, that’s science. I realise that some people have problems with science. It gets in the way of their being selfish entitled prats. Continue on being stubbornly ignorant though. Ignorance truly is bliss, and you seem quite happy indeed. I will continue to actually learn me some damned science. The kind that tells me how the real world functions and doesn't require any disaster movie whatsoever.

    2. stucs201


      To ensure they don't accidentally escape we should get on with extracting them in a controlled fashion and burn them!

  8. efeffess

    Mega-Pirates To Blame

    "A team of US researchers found that the level of dissolved oxygen in a 36,000-square-mile are surrounding the rig had plummeted..."

  9. Graham Marsden

    "releases of methane...

    "[...] will not have the capacity to influence climate"

    Erm, no, but surely they'll be devastating for sea-life which relies on the dissolved oxygen in the water?

  10. Anonymous Coward


    Nature is amazing. Who'd have thought that it could evolve creatures that reverse fart!

  11. Michael Xion
    Thumb Up

    I for one...

    ... Welcome our methane eating overlords. Pass me the vindaloo.

  12. Michael 17

    The Register is not a reliable climate change news reporter

    I normally enjoy coming to read The Register for it's coverage of tech news. But the slant in the climate change news articles makes me wonder how much bias exists in the other reporting on the site. The article accurately reports the paper that was published. But unlike other coverage of this study, the article seems to miss all the uncertainties. For example, other scientists question whether the levels of copper found in the water could have supported the explosive growth in methane consuming bacteria the paper claims.

    The Register has no obligation to report all of the uncertainties and debate around each climate change study. But it seems to only reports the debate that tries to shoot holes in the climate change theory, and never covers the uncertainties that cast doubt on the anti human caused climate change position.

    An example of better coverage of this story can be found at the Christian Science Monitor:

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Your comment seemed interesting

      Right up to the point where you reference the Christian Science Monitor.

      That's when you lost all credibility and became ridiculous and hypocritical because of your rant against someone else's "slant".

      The next time you want to play the high road game, try and reference a REAL scientific publication. You'll look better and your argument will be taken seriously.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        The Christian Science Monitor, despite its name, is a reputable and highly respected news journal.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Wouldn't be quite so interesting to read if they just went along with what the mainstream say would it?

      No-one said they had to be unbiased (not the Beeb after all) and no-one has said that man-made climate change is a fact.

      If the stories are so dissappointing, why take the time to read and comment on them?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Poor Michael

      He only seems to post to complain about The Reg's climate stories. I wonder if he gets paid-by-the-post?

    4. Rob Moir

      "reliable climate change news reporter"

      Whenever I see someone talk about "reliable climate change news reporter" they always mean "someone who agrees with my pre-conceptions".

    5. Tom 13

      EE Doc Smith was an amusing SF pulp writer.

      While I grant his character development was non existent, he was wont to write amusing scenarios. One of my favorites occurs in one of his Skylark books. Having discovered that he and his crew were traveling faster than the speed of light, the scientist comments "Einstein was wrong. I'll have to figure that out later."

      If the paper writes that the methane consuming bacteria count was X based on an accepted and proven technique, it is not the count which is wrong because there isn't enough copper to support the bacteria, it is the theory of how much copper is required to support the bacteria which is wrong.

  13. DAN*tastik

    Do they sell them anywhere?

    If I ever happen to share a room with my mate Steve again, I'll buy three bags of those.

  14. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Sounds like some climate models may need some revision.

    Now what can those bacteria be *used* for?

  15. Paul Shirley

    oilfield seepage, even from oilheads isn't the problem

    In areas with longstanding oil seepage and presumably a constant trickle of methane along with it, the ecosystem adapts to eat oil and methane. The only surprise is how well they gorged, warm waters should have been a clue.

    This tells us bugger all about the real problem areas, where methane is frozen in hydrates or permafrost and likely to outgas far too quickly for bacteria to catch before it hits the atmosphere, in areas too cold for them to work as effectively anyway.

    If this affects climate change predictions it's more likely that results in underestimating the effects of catastrophic release. Bad news.

    1. Tom 13

      Actually, it tells us something really, really important:

      the so-called experts were clueless in the warm water areas where all the AGW religionists are now proclaiming these things are well understood, so they are likely to be equally clueless in the areas where they now proclaim "the real problems" are and what mechanisms will occur IF things warm up.

  16. E 2

    1 million ton oxygen deficit

    When you have all the oxygen in a volume of the ocean removed then all the oxygen 'breathing' animals in that region of the ocean die. This happens with red tides IIRC, and also when massive doses of phosphates usually from fertilizers are dumped into lakes and oceans and stimulate alfal blooms.

    So now everyone is happy the evil methane is gone - that's OK I suppose but the problem has simply been transformed into a different shape - no damned oxygen!

    Something that has been little commented on since the spill but which was reported at the time is this: whatever BP was pumping into the deep waters during the spill occasionally came to the surface and made people out on the water very very ill. The spill turned out to dissipate faster than expected - but was that because BP was perhaps pumping the nastiest dispersants available as fast as it could as deep as it could?

    So great, the spill was dissipated pretty quick, but how many megatons of poison were added to ocean to achieve that?

    Outta sight outta mind! People are so short sighted sometimes it amazes me.

    1. Tom 13

      Re: "whatever BP were dumping into"

      What they dumped in is a pretty well understood chemical, and its most noticeable characteristic was that all of its known carcinogenic affects were lower thresholds than the known carcinogenic affects of the oil which was gushing into the ocean, despite EPA hysterics.

    2. Javc

      Re: 1 million ton oxygen deficit

      "When you have all the oxygen in a volume of the ocean removed"

      A 1 million ton oxygen deficit in the Gulf of Mexico is not the same as "all" of the oxygen removed. The article never said that.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Horns

    Methane digesters.

    They have interstellar versions as well.....

    Methane digesters that are located around Uranus.

  18. T J

    Not have the capacity to influence credibility

    "What the Deepwater Horizon incident has taught us is that releases of methane with similar characteristics will not have the capacity to influence climate," Kessler said.

    WOW! Jumped to that conclusion so fast he made my head spin!

    So there's an infinite supply of these bacteria they dont rely on any other factors maintained by the ocean status quo and they can DEFINITELY deal with any quantity of methyl chelates escaping from the sea floor. Riiiiiiiiiiiight......................

  19. Tigra 07

    Bad climate!

    I don't personally think we should be paying any climate change taxes until it can actually be proved people are causing it.

    An assumption should not cost us money.

    Every week something happens now to throw doubt on current thinking and imagine the scandal if in 20 years it's determined that all we had was a warm period like in the Medieval times and not man-made global warming.

  20. Graham Bartlett


    You beat me to it, dude.

    This also happens at the mouths of many rivers where there's major amounts of farming upstream. Chemical fertiliser runoff ends up in the river, and the river ends up in the sea. Billions of algae chow down on the fertiliser and expand out of control, using up all the oxygen as they do so. The algal bloom then decomposes anaerobically, which further poisons the water for anything else in there.

    So yeah, sure, we may get rid of the oil quicker than expected. Great. But El Reg might like to mention the downside, which is the death of every single living creature in the area affected by the spill, without exception, and the death of all plant life more complex than single-celled algae. Which is not quite so nice.

    And it's especially not-so-nice when scaled up to the level of hydrates affecting massive areas of the sea. Fantastic - we might not have as much climate change if those cook off. But we'll have turned the sea into a mess of anaerobic poison, and the only fish left will be in tanks at the zoo. But screw it, it's only a fish, right?

    For sure, we need to find out what the facts are - that's what science is all about. But it's not very clever to say "don't worry about the frying pan, it won't happen" and then fail to mention the fire which is the alternative...

  21. Adam T

    Gaia wins again

    Where's the hippy icon?

  22. 2cent

    Slice of the pie

    "What the Deepwater Horizon incident has taught us is that releases of methane with similar characteristics will not have the capacity to influence climate," Kessler said.

    Spoken like someone who only sees anything above the horizon as climate and totally disregards any changes in the oceans might have on climate.

    Did he say more, or is this selective science or just not thinking clearly before speaking?

  23. Anonymous Coward

    thecakeis(not)alie - re: I hear ya.

    sorry, just couldn't resist downvoting that one, this is the Register after all :)

    anonymous for the very good reason you would probably come around my house and shoot me.

    1. thecakeis(not)alie

      I doubt it.

      I'm not a particularly violent person. I'd just make my roomate blog about it, then go out in the sun with real people and forget about it. It is, after all, only the internet!

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