Methane hydrates are an ice that lies underwater off most of the continents as well as in permafrost. They consist of methane molecules held in a “cage” of frozen water and can only exist at low temperatures and high pressures. When you encounter them underwater they look like a dirty snowbank, but they contain an enormous amount of stored energy–both in those methane molecules–and structurally, because if a lot of them are dislodged at once they can trigger tsunamis. (Famously, this ice burns.) In 2013 I went out on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s boat the Western Flyer on an 11-day trip to explore methane hydrates off the coast of California using a robotic submarine, the ROV Doc Ricketts. We know relatively little about methane hydrates and only started seriously studying them in the 1980’s, but they are a huge and mysterious part of the earth’s climate regulation. It is as if we only discovered the polar ice caps 40 years ago. I also was given the opportunity to eat a bit of the methane hydrate–it was cold, bitter, and almost minty.
The story ran in Scientific American.