Seeping from fracturing seabed, tectonic plate movement and deep-water super-saline pools is as much as produced by Kuwait or the UAE, a team from Max Planck determines
Ruth Schuster | Jan. 29, 2020

One would expect the massive Middle Eastern petroleum industry to affect air quality over the whole region, including the Red Sea – and it does. But scientists on a 2017 shipping expedition in the Arabian Peninsula were astonished to discovery that ethane and propane levels in the northernmost Red Sea were up to 40 times higher than predicted.

Around the world, atmospheric concentrations of ethane and propane correlate with industrial activity, and the oil industry and pollution from gas flares can explain high concentrations over the Arabian Gulf and Suez Canal. But anthropogenic elements couldn’t explain the high levels of propane and ethane over the northern Red Sea. Some agency other than industry was at play, and on Tuesday the explanation was published in Nature Communications.

To their surprise, deep analysis found the answers at the bottom of the Red Sea. Israel isn’t affected because it is upwind from the emissions point, lead author Dr. Efstratios Bourtsoukidis of the Mainz-based Max Planck Institute for Chemistry (which also organized the expedition) tells Haaretz. The affected areas are mainly southern Egypt’s Red Sea coast, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.

The amount of gases rising from the seabed is comparable to the total anthropogenic emissions from entire individual Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the team reports.

But whence is this gargantuan emission of gaseous hydrocarbons from the seabed? The Red Sea lies between the Arabian and African continental plates, Bourtsoukidis explains. The southern Red Sea floor has been spreading for the past 5 million years, while the northern part is in a stage of continental rifting. Tectonic and seismic movements fracture the seafloor, which can potentially cause emission bursts.

More emissions come directly from dense super-saline water on the seafloor rising surface-ward, bringing gases seeping from hydrocarbon reservoirs – and from leaking wells.

In short, much of the “surplus” gas is natural in source, but there is an anthropogenous contribution. The magnitude of each contribution remains to be determined, Bourtsoukidis qualifies. But it seems that their cumulative contribution represents the missing source of the huge gas concentrations above the northern Red Sea, the team says.

This phenomenon is unique to the Red Sea, Bourtsoukidis confirms to Haaretz. This makes sense: The Middle East has more than half of the planet’s known oil and gas reserves.

And is there a problem with these gas concentrations? There might not be, if not for the shipping industry.

“In pre-industrial times, the underwater emissions of ethane and propane would not have had significant implications for regional air quality,” Bourtsoukidis says. But among the pollutants ships emit are nitrogen oxides in gas form. These react with the ethane and propane, producing tropospheric ozone and peroxacyl nitrates – both of which damage our health, he says.

About the ozone: The troposphere is the lowest layer of the atmosphere, up to about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in altitude, and that ozone (O3) is unstable and toxic to flora and fauna alike. The “good” ozone layer that protects us from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, which science has been worrying about for decades, is 20 to 30 kilometers in altitude. As for the peroxacyl nitrates, they irritate our lungs and eyes, Bourtsoukidis explains.

The bottom line is that part of the problem stems from the natural riches of hydrocarbons in the local rocks and plate tectonics, which can’t be solved. And since shipping through the Red Sea and Suez Canal is only expected to increase, we can expect a concomitant rise in nitrogen oxide emissions, Bourtsoukidis warns. That translates into deteriorating air quality.

The measurements took place in summer time. Considering the seasonality of the deep-water circulation, it is likely that the emissions to the atmosphere will be further enhanced during the wintertime, the team writes.

“The upwelling of the intermediate and deep water takes place in the narrow band along the Egyptian coast,” Bourtsoukidis says – and it has a seasonal aspect: “The upwelling is weaker in summer compared with the winter, since atmospheric cooling drives the open water convection and enhances the vertical mixing in the water column,” he adds.

Finally, let us be clear about something. “The newly discovered source should not be directly compared with the environmental impacts of the oil and gas industry in the Middle East, since these are emitting many more atmospheric pollutants,” the scientists drive home.

However, the team recognized in the course of its 20,000-kilometer sailing mission – traversing the Mediterranean Sea, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the northern Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf, and back again – that the petroleum industry couldn’t be the source of anomalies in the air. Which doesn’t absolve them – including Israel’s new massive gas-mining and production industry in the Mediterranean – of other ills.
Red Sea huge source of air pollution, greenhouse gases — study – JORDAN TIMES

Jan 28,2020

PARIS — Hydrocarbon gases bubbling from the bottom of the Red Sea are polluting the atmosphere at a rate equivalent to the emissions of some large fossil fuel exporting countries, researchers said Tuesday.

The gases seeping from the waters — which are ringed by the resorts and ports of several countries, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — then mix with emissions from industrial shipping and turned into noxious pollutants that are very harmful to human health.

The Middle East holds more than half of the world’s oil and gas reserves and the intense fossil fuel exploitation that takes place there, and the region releases enormous amounts of gaseous pollutants into the atmosphere.

But during a 2017 expedition around the Gulf, researchers at the Max Plank Institute for Chemistry noticed that levels of ethane and propane in the air above the northern Red Sea were up to 40 times higher than predicted, even accounting for regional manmade emissions.

The team analysed possible sources for the gas emissions, including traffic, agriculture, burning of biomass, and power generation from hydrocarbons.

They came to an unexpected conclusion: the two gases had to be seeping out of the sea bed after escaping natural subterranean oil and gas reservoirs.

They were then carried by currents to the surface, where they mix with another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, which is emitted in high amounts by industrial shipping.

The resulting gas compounds are extremely harmful to human health, according to the team’s study, published in Nature Communications.

“I have to admit that I was surprised myself with these results,” lead author Efstratios Boursoukidis told AFP.

“We spent almost two years working on this dataset to confidently prove that the emissions were coming some two kilometres below the sea surface.”

The team calculated that the rate of ethane and propane leakage was “comparable in magnitude” to those of several hydrocarbon exporting nations, such as the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait.

The emissions result in another source of atmospheric methane, a potent greenhouse gas, the study said.

The situation is exacerbated by nitrous oxide pollution from the large number of shipping containers passing through the northern Red Sea, one of Earth’s busiest transport lanes.

And it’s only likely to get worse as the route gets busier.

“In the coming decades, ship traffic through the Red Sea and Suez Canal is expected to continue to increase, with a concomitant rise in nitrogen oxide emissions,” said Boursoukidis.

“We expect that such increase will amplify the role of this source, leading to significant deterioration of the regional air quality.”