Methane Gas Seeps

page last updated: 14 April 2010

Project Team

  • Katey Walter Anthony, Primary Investigator, UAF Institute of Northern Engineering
  • Dennis Witmer, Co-Investigator, UAF INE Arctic Energy Technology Development Laboratory
  • Matthew Wooler, Co-Investigator, UAF INE Alaska Stable Isotopes Facility
  • Gwen Holdman, Co-Investigator, UAF INE Alaska Center for Energy and Power
  • Jack Schmid, Engineering Associates UAF INE Arctic Energy Technology Development Laboratory
  • Tom Johnson, Engineering Associates, UAF INE Arctic Energy Technology Development Laboratory
  • Melissa Smith, Undergraduate Student, UAF Institute of Northern Engineering
Regional Map of Northern Alaska showing the location of Atqasuk in the NPRA

Regional map of Northern Alaska showing the location of Atqasuk, a rural village surrounded by natural methane gas seeps

Objectives

To evaluate the potential for environmentally responsible development of unconventional natural gas from seeps near the remote Alaskan village of Atqasuk for local space heating and power generation. Research priorities include identifying and evaluating the quantity, quality, and location of natural seeps, as well as determining potential capture and transport mechanisms necessary for future resource development.

Project Description

Methane (CH4) in natural gas is a major energy source in the U.S., and is used extensively on Alaska’s North Slope, including the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay, the community of Barrow, and the National Petroleum Reserve, Alaska (NPRA). Smaller villages, however, are dependent on imported diesel fuel for both power and heating, resulting in some of the highest energy costs in the U.S. and crippling local economies. Numerous CH4 gas seeps have been observed on wetlands near Atqasuk, Alaska, (in the NPRA) and initial measurements have indicated very high flow rates. Gas samples collected in 1996 indicated biogenic origin, although more recent sampling indicated a mixture of biogenic and thermogenic gas. This study will:

  1. quantify the amount of CH4 generated by these seeps and evaluate their potential use as an unconventional gas source for the village of Atqasuk and
  2. collect gas and analyze its composition from multiple seeps several miles apart to see if the source is the same, or if gas is being generated locally from isolated biogenic sources, and to identify the source of CH4 (decomposition of biomass, CH4 from coal seams, dissociating gas hydrates, or deep conventional gas) and
  3. assess the magnitude of natural CH4 gas seeps for future use in climate change modeling.
Locations of natural methane seeps around Atqasuk, Alaska
  1. CH4 seeps reported in the Atqasuk area shown as white dots
  2. the Qalluuraq Lake Q seep, shown from the air
  3. water surface of Lake Q in Auguat 2007 and
  4. water surface of Lake Q in January 2008

These seeps are of interest as an energy source given preliminary measurements of high flow rates and CH4 concentration.

Potential Impact

Potential benefits of the project are:

  1. Reduction in the consumption of diesel fuel in Atqasuk both for power generation and home heating (approximately 500,000 gallons per year)
  2. better understanding of the gas resources in the NPRA area, with potential larger markets
  3. on the climate change side, quantifying natural seeps to atmospheric CH4 sources may change our understanding of the global balance between human and natural sources.

Recent work revealed that seeps may contribute as much as 50-70 million tones of atmospheric CH4 per year, or ~10% of global sources. Additionally, capture and use of CH4 from seeps mitigates global climate change in two ways: Combusting CH4, a potent greenhouse gas (CH4 is 25 times stronger than CO2 on a per molecule basis), converts it to the weaker greenhouse gases, CO2 and H2O; and use of local CH4 reduces energy consumption associated with diesel usage and shipping to remote villages.