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Intensive study of NZ seafloor to start this week - 10/01/2007

A German research ship with a multi-national crew of scientists sets off from Wellington this week for a three-month study of New Zealand’s ocean floor.A focus of the project is to learn more about gas hydrates - deposits of frozen methane beneath the sea floor off the North Island’s east coast between Cook Strait and East Cape.

Gas hydrates occur worldwide, but the international marine science community regards those off the New Zealand coast as attractive to study because they are accessible, they are actively seeping methane into the ocean, they occur at a variety of depths, and they vary between stable and unstable depending of ocean current temperatures.

This makes the area known as the Hikurangi Margin, off the North Island’s east coast, a unique study area.

Gas hydrates are seen as a possible future energy source. The other reason they are significant is that when they decompose naturally, they release large amounts of methane into the ocean.

Scientists on the voyage will use a wide range of equipment and techniques to determine the physical extent of gas hydrates under the seafloor, and the processes that cause their decomposition.

They also aim to find out how much methane enters the atmosphere when gas hydrates decompose. It is not known how much methane is absorbed into the ocean and how much is consumed by seafloor micro-organisms. The scientists will use a range of experiments and analysis of the seafloor sediment to answer this question.

Co-project leader, Jens Greinert of GNS Science, said scientists worldwide were keen to know the conditions under which methane from the seafloor entered the atmosphere, and the speed of chemical reactions involved in the breakdown of gas hydrates.

“ There are many questions to be answered about gas hydrates and this research voyage is hopefully just the start of an extensive programme in New Zealand to find out more about this phenomenon,” Dr Greinert said.

The research will take place from the 98m-long Sonne (German for ‘sun’), a well equipped research ship capable of deploying a variety of video-guided sediment sampling devices and deepsea robots for studying the ocean floor.

The voyage, led by the German research institute IFM-GEOMAR from Kiel, involves 27 scientists from 11 research organisations – five from New Zealand, five from Europe, and one from Australia. The Sonne is scheduled to put to sea on Friday morning.