Once upon a time, in about 1776, the dashing Italian Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta fell to watching the gas bubbles that rose to the surface on the stunning Lake Maggiore.
Now, he thought to himself, what is that all about?
There was only one way to find out. Collect the gas and test it. And it was in this way that he uncloaked methane for the very first time.
It was generated from the rotting plants that lay at the bottom of the lake. Now scientists say plants sink to the bottom of the lake and begin to shed all their chemical signs of life: the oxygen, the iron, the nitrate and so on.
This causes a build up of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. And the final housekeepers of decay are methanogens: helpful microbes who make it all go away and leave methane in their wake.
As with any messy clear-up job there’s always a price to pay. The resultant gas has a few side-effects.
The most obvious one is the smell. Methane is not one of Mother Earth’s most edifying perfumes. It is a constituent of the flatulent gases of many mammals, especially those with more than one stomach.
Cows emit vast amounts of methane: primarily through belching, but a goodly amount through good, old-fashioned flatulence. It seems they are venting tens of gallons of the stuff each, daily.
And this constitutes quite a problem for the greenhouse-gas dilemma. New Zealand’s cows and livestock contribute 34 per cent of its greenhouse gases. Even in Britain 25-30 per cent of its methane comes from cows.
Welsh scientists at the University of Aberystwyth are busily prescribing garlic, which attacks those little methanogens. Early findings indicate the garlic appears to decrease methane by half.
But this gas is not all mundane flatulence and factfinding. It has fuelled many things in its time, and this includes conspiracy theories.
Aliens, for one.
The extra terrestrial theory goes like this: methane in the atmosphere of any planet doesn’t just stay there. Its amounts will dwindle unless there is life to make it large.
So when the Mars Express Orbiter verified theories that methane was present there, it set tongues a-wagging. A year later the Huygens Probe found it on Titan. One begins to wonder who has been there before us.
But it is argued volcanoes could be the manufacturers of the methane. We eagerly await clarification. Just maybe, we are not alone.
Methane may be a sign of life and a sign of decay: but it is a force in its own right.
Those little bubbles Volta spotted, centuries ago, are now thought to be one of the reasons for a throughly modern instance of castle building in the air.
I speak of a triangle of sea, with Miami’s coast, San Juan and Bermuda at its three points.
Journalists presided over its conception in 1950. Associated Press reporter Edward Van Winkle Jones wrote about mysterious disappearances in the triangle covering the Straits of Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean.
Where AP led, others followed: Fate Magazine featured an article by George X Sands about the loss of several planes and ships in the area. The kookiest disappearance involved the US Navy Bomber flight 19, whose comments over the air before their disappearance do sound a little unorthodox: ”We are entering white water, nothing seems right. We don’t know where we are, the water is green, no white.”
This was not aided by the officials at the Navy board of inquiry into the disappearance, who are said to have stated that the planes “flew off to Mars.” Supernatural theories abounded, spearheaded by Argosy’s Vincent Gaddis, who even published a book entitled imaginatively “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle”.g
One explanation for the disappearances centres on a suspect we have met before.
Scale models of ships can be sunk by small bubbles of methane, a series of experiments from Australia proved. On the continental shelves in the area, methane hydrates, aka natural gas, seem to have collected.
What if great big bubbles of it were responsible for sinking life-size vessels?
Ah, this Caliban of a gas: responsible for the basest of humour, depletion of the ozone layer, life on Mars and the mysterious disappearances of one of the worlds most notorious disappearance blackspots.
Talk about versatile.
This was a bovine gaseous repost.