A very versatile gas

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.

We all have our stories, don’t we?

One day I was running in the forest, my only companion the dog, when the turbulence of my activity made venting a necessity. I resisted as long as I could: but heck, I was in the middle of a deserted forest with no-one for miles around to hear me; my dog would meet my contribution with all the appreciation of a connoisseur for a fine wine’s bouquet.

In a comedy whoopee-cushion moment I succumbed, the robust sound reverberating round the forest.

Whereupon the runner who had been just behind me overtook with athletic stride, widening the gap between us with something akin to panic.

He needn’t have worried. Odds indicate that for every nine adults only five of them will have the microbes which create the offending gas, and even then methane constitutes ten per cent or less of the exiting wind.

Now cows: they’re a different kettle of fish all together.

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”.

Finally, someone spotted the Emperor was wearing no clothes.

Larry Kusche, a research librarian at Arizona State University, debunked the myth for some: in ‘The Bermuda Triangle Mystery: Solved’ (1975) he pointed out that no more vessels went missing here than anywhere else in the ocean, and shot holes in sloppy research carried out through the years. One of the strange tales had been manufactured from nowhere: pure urban myth.

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.


30 thoughts on “A very versatile gas

  1. “…great big bubbles of it were responsible for sinking life size vessels?” Much of it comes from the US Congress in Washington and they are sinking this “ship of state”

  2. You are at least as versatile as methane, Kate!

    I saw the photo at the top and thought, Hmm . . . could she already be addressing my request? Surely not so soon.

    I snorted along with:

    In a comedy whoopee-cushion moment I succumbed, the robust sound reverberating round the forest. Whereupon the runner who had been just behind me overtook with athletic stride, widening the gap between us with something akin to panic.

    When you segued into cows in Australia, I confidently concluded that the Bermuda Triangle would be addressed in a future post. I grew ever more confident of that conclusion when we traveled from Australia to England to Mars to Titan to Volcanic Eruptions.

    And, then, there . . . on the horizon . . . I spotted your return to the waters.

    No lake this. The ocean loomed. You readied to sink my encapsulated and erroneous conclusion like a ship turned into a Coral Reef . . .

    Sunk! By methane!

    You rock!

    1. No time like the present 🙂 Bit of a voyage there, Nancy, with many strange events happening along the way. Glad you enjoyed it….thanks so much. You, too, rock.

  3. Nancy asks you to investigate the Bermuda Triangle and you come up with a fluffer? (We don’t say fart in this house.) Absolutely entertaining, it’s 4.30am and I almost set the burglar alarm off laughing.

    1. 😀 You can get a lot of mileage out of gas, Cindy 😀 We don’t say it either: It’s either a Noddy-esque “Parp” or Nursie from Blackadder’s “Fruitful flabby woof woofs”.

  4. okay…I just want to know how long it takes you to compose one of these ditties? amazing in detail, info and humor…love the forest story (as one who jogs a bit, I thought it quite apt…turbulence indeed, ha! )

    1. I write in fits and starts when the kids don’t need me, Angela, so it’s hard to say: got about 300 words done before kiddie bedtime on and off between 5 and 8, then wrote solidly for an hour. Good to hear a fellow runner is not shocked by my adventures 😀

  5. ha, ha – have any runners gone missing in that forest in which you jog? A most enjoyable read, Kate 😀 and that sounds like a perfectly plausible explanation for the mishaps in the BT

  6. Ah, you’ve done it again, Kate. Captured my attention. We just got back from a long, long car ride in which we passed up many a cattle truck. We could have made it all the way on methane . . . tee hee!

  7. Great piece Kate! Good debunking with humour.
    (I saw it before I had to leave for work, but didn’t have time to read 🙂 )
    Gaseous humour is inevitable with three boys (I include Cyclo here) – and we have no dog to blame.

    I say
    ‘Who’s thickened the air?” when the offending flatulence is released in an enclosed space… such as the car.

    Always responded to with,
    “He who smelt it dealt it.”

    But one of my favourites is the comment, by Billy Ray:
    “When I was growing up, if we wanted a Jacuzzi, we had to fart in the tub.”

    1. PS… can you imagine all that garlic breath on cattle and sheep… but maybe the Sunday roast wouldn’t need slivers inserted – ?

  8. OMG, this is fascinating, Kate – and thanks for the LOL 😀 I’ve not heard of those comments from flight 19 before. That’s positively spooky!

  9. My son had told me about the bubbles and the Bermuda Triangle – which I found plausible and fascinating – he didn’t mention the methane though – reminds me of my own post about the La Brea Tarpits…as well as my post about stopping to answer nature’s call along a hiking trail just at the same time that the only hikers of the day passed by…..

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