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Aug 25, 2014 11:59 AM EDT

Methane Leakage on the Seafloor Off the U.S. East Coast a Contributor to Warming Ocean, Climate

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New research has pointed to hundreds of seafloor methane vents off the U.S. East Coast as a potential contributor to global warming.

According to BBC News, the new study is published in the journal Nature and its authors say there are more than 30,000 such vents worldwide. The discovery was not planned and it suggests a large volume of the gas is contained in an icy compound known as methane hydrate.

The researchers said they spotted at least 570 vents off the coast between North Carolina and Massachusetts, anywhere from 50m to 1,700m down.

"It is the first time we have seen this level of seepage outside the Arctic that is not associated with features like oil or gas reservoirs or active tectonic margins," study lead author Adam Skarke, a professor at Mississippi State University, told BBC News.

Methane is bubbling to the surface from these seafloor seeps and the warming of the Atlantic Ocean is thought to be influencing the melting of the methane hydrates. The gas is known to have an affect in global warming because methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

"Warming of the ocean waters could cause this ice to melt and release gas," Skarke told NBC News. "So there may be some connection here to intermediate ocean warming, though we need to carry out further investigations to confirm if that is the case."

Of course, as the ocean's temperature is steadily rising, the release of methane is contributing to that warming, which would in turn influence the melting of more methane hydrate.

"These are significant geochemically, as they and our research teams found perhaps one of the largest seeps yet discovered with very active methane bubbling and large amounts of frozen hydrates," Steve Ross, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington who contributed to the research, told BBC News. "These seeps are also significant biologically, as we have found unique chemosynthetic communities, huge range extensions and increased biodiversity."

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