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Methane mining could trigger killer gas cloud
BENEATH the shimmering surface of Africa's Lake Kivu, a deadly time bomb awaits. A "gold rush" to extract valuable methane from the lake's depths might trigger an outburst of gas that could wash a deadly, suffocating blanket over the 2 million people who live around Kivu's shores.
The lake, which is almost half a kilometre deep in places, is on Rwanda's north-west border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (see map) and contains a vast reservoir of dissolved methane. Many companies are extracting the gas to burn for electricity production, and the governments of both nations are aggressively courting further investment in extraction plants.
Now a group of biochemists warns that if unregulated extraction continues unabated, it could trigger a catastrophic outgassing of carbon dioxide - another dissolved gas abundant in the lake's depths. Such a disaster occurred at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986, killing 1700 people. Kivu contains 300 times more CO2 than Nyos did, warns Alfred Wüest, a bio-geochemist based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag).
According to a report by 15 researchers at Eawag and other institutes, certain current practices could trigger a catastrophic outgassing when methane extraction becomes widespread, as it will in the near future.
The Rwandan government, which commissioned the report, received it in June, but none of the recommendations has been applied or enforced so far, claims Kling. "There are no regulations in place as far as I know," he says. "Our hope is that we can get the governments to require and enforce regulations."
Perhaps the most dangerous practice is pumping waste water into the lake's shallows. "If degassed water is dumped at the surface, it sinks, mixing water and salts between the lake's layers," says George Kling, an expert on the Lake Nyos disaster at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the report. Enough mixing would disrupt the density stratification of the lake, and could bring huge volumes of CO2-rich water to the surface. The pressure reduction would cause the CO2 to bubble out of solution. Instead, waste water must be re-injected where it came from, the report recommends, at a depth greater than 270 metres.