News reports of the failed attempt to contain the oil-spewing equipment on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico have referred obliquely to things like “ice crystals” or an “icy slush” clogging the hardware that was intended to cap the leak. Anyone who is paying attention would recognize that there’s a bit of a problem here, in that, even at the temperatures and pressures of the ocean at the site, the water there is very much in its liquid phase, as are the hydrocarbons that are spewing through the leak. The methane that caused the original explosion remains gaseous down to -161°C. The “ice” that’s forming is actually a solidified mixture of methane and water called a clathrate. Clathrates have also been in the news because of a potential role in climate change, so it seems like an opportune time to explain what they are.
Ars Technica goes on to explain the chemistry of these Clathrates, and how they can exist at the bottom of the ocean.
And, on the subject of the oil breach, it’s a damn shame that it’s going to take the destruction of most of the marine industries in the Gulf, and large parts of the ecosystem, for people to realize off shore drilling, in both safety and trade offs, is a more complicated issue then “drill, baby, drill.”