Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Methane Mix-Up: Losing Yourself in The Bermuda Triangle

Special thanks to Veronica in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada for this week’s topic. Veronica was kind enough to send us this link and on the ball enough to ask “Seriously?”

To understand the Bermuda Triangle it helps to first get our bearings on this big old planet of ours. If you connect the dots formed by the country of Bermuda; Miami, Florida; and San Juan, Puerto Rico on a map you will have created a triangle covering about 1.3 million square kilometers (500,000 square miles) of the North Atlantic Ocean. Some people argue that based on historical data of plane and ship wrecks, this is most dangerous area of all the world’s oceans.  

Before we dive into possible explanations for the Bermuda Triangle, it is pertinent to stop and make the most popular demand in all of science: show me the evidence! Aficionados of the triangle claim that in the past 100 years, about 100 ships/planes have vanished within its borders, claiming 1,000 lives. That right there should set of your suspicion-o-meter. The numbers are too neat. Nature doesn’t work with many zeros.

When you have a question about shipwrecks, you are best off asking the folks at Lloyd’s of London. As the world’s top insurer of all things nautical, Lloyds has a vested interest (in the order of billions of dollars) in knowing where the dangerous parts of the ocean are. They recorded 428 sunken vessels between 1955 and 1975 and when asked about rates of disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle they have been quoted as saying “It doesn’t exist.” Yes indeed, insurance rates for ships in the Bermuda Triangle are no higher than for anywhere else in the ocean.

That kind of takes the wind out of our sails, right out of the gate. But there is hope! Lloyd’s of London deals mostly in massive cargo ships and not so much in personal air and watercraft, so let’s just pretend we didn’t read that last paragraph… And let’s ignore the US coast guard when they reassure us that the rate of disappearances in the so-called Bermuda Triangle is no higher than anywhere else. Instead we can cling to the alleged reports from the National Transportation and Safety Board that indicate that only 10 private planes have disappeared off the coast of New England in the last 50 years, while 30 have gone off the radar in the triangle.

Okay, so what might be causing this string of definitely not-made-up disappearances? As you would expect for this sort of things, there are more theories than there are confirmed missing persons. The most note-worthy are aliens, wormholes to other dimensions, and government bomb testing. But this is a science blog, so let’s set aside the nonsense right now.

One of the more interesting theories still in the far-fetched category involves something called electric fog. Bruce Gernon and Rob MacGregor, two experienced pilots, have written a book called The Fog: A Never Before Published Theory of the Bermuda Triangle Phenomenon. In it, they describe eerily round clouds they have each encountered on flights in the area. Gernon, on one flight, attempted to fly through a tunnel in one of these clouds only to have his instruments malfunction and observe a strange electric disturbance on the walls of this plane. He also reports emerging from the fog to find himself flying over Miami after flying for 47 minutes. His route that day was scheduled to take 75 minutes.

Spooky time-travelling fog aside, the more realistic explanations for the Bermuda Triangle (which is totally a real thing, in case you forgot) centre around weather, ocean topography, and human error. The east coast of North America is not only a magnet for hurricanes, it has some of the deepest ocean trenches on the planet as well as a large number of amateur pilots and seamen. Those are all components in a bad equation.

But what about the link that started off this article? What about these supposed Methane Vents? Well, it turns out that the internet may be on to something. The area off the east coast of the United States contains methane deposits in enough quantity to meet the country’s current natural gas output for 16,000 years. These deposits form as dead, decomposing plants and animals at the bottom of the very deep ocean release gases, namely methane. Since the temperature is so low and the pressure is so high, these gases get trapped in the sediment.

Researchers Elchin Bagirov and Ian Lerche have studied similar “Methane Hydrates” (methane trapped in ice instead of sediment) in the Caspian Sea and deemed them to be a serious hazard to oil drilling in the area, because of their instability. When these methane deposits rupture they can release gas so violently that the entire water column above them becomes less dense. Theoretically a ship directly above a methane eruption could be sunk. There is no record of this ever actually happening, but if your ship goes down in a vortex of bubbling methane you aren’t likely to survive to tell the people who record such things.

It is kind of a one in a million shot. The equivalent of lightning from below. And it still doesn’t explain all the alleged plane disappearances, but as far as cool science goes, it is high on the list of possible explanations. And we really do need explanations because, as we have seen, the Bermuda Triangle is definitely a totally real thing that actually exists.