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No. 110: Mar-Apr 1997

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Did a methane burp down twa800?

The potential for methane eruptions from offshore sediments to sink ships and down aircraft was proposed by W.D. McIver way back in 1982, in the Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. (SF#25/208) The source of methane-gas releases ("burps") is the rapid decomposition of methane hydrate, which exists in prodigious quantities in offshore sediments. Some geologists have estimated that there is twice as much methane in methane-hydrate deposits as in all terrestrial natural-gas fields. What makes methane hydrate potentially lethal is its instability. Landslides and small quakes can release huge plumes of methane bubbles into the ocean and thence into the atmosphere.

Ships might founder in the lowdensity froth of bubbles, and aircraft might be adversely affected, too. This is where TWA800 comes in.

R. Spalding, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories has been monitoring mysterious atmospheric explosions and believes that some of these detonations are consistent with the atmospheric ignition of huge methane plumes. (Other detonations are due to meteors.) Spalding proposes the following scenario:

Supporting Spalding's theory are the many reports of light flashes, light streaks, and booming/rumbling sounds accompanying the disaster. But, methane burps are bizarre, and the properties of methane hydrate are so unfamiliar to most scientists and investigators of aircraft disasters that Spalding's idea has received scant attention.

(Spohn, Lawrence; "Earth 'Burp' Might Have Downed Jet, Scientists Says," Albuquerque Tribune, January 20, 1997. More appeared in the January 24, issue. Cr. R. Spalding)

Comment. The phenomena accompanying methane burps are well known to SF readers. First, there are the common offshore booms that have been reported for centuries (SF#3/283, SF#8/283) and; second, the large craters (up to 100 meters across) observed in seafloor sediments (SF#9/197).

The Albuquerque Tribune article mentioned several other specific atmospheric detonations that have attracted attention: Newfoundland (1978); Spain (1994; Poland (1995); and Honduras (1996). Often such events are noticed only by surveillance satellites. However, the 1996 Honduras event was seen and heard by many residents of the area. See the next entry.

Reference. Methane hydrate is abundant in offshore deposits but hard to study. See ESC9 in the catalog: Anomalies in Geology. Ordering information here.

From Science Frontiers #110, MAR-APR 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987