Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Bermuda Triangle: It's a Real Gas

In the twentieth century, there was a lot of popular discussion of “the Bermuda triangle,” a triangular area of ocean roughly bounded by the tip of Florida, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. There have been numerous instances of ships and airplanes simply vanishing without record, without remains, and without explanation. Some writers indicated that, because they could not imagine how such disappearances happened, then it must have been the work of extraterrestrial aliens.

I consider this topic, while of limited value in itself, to be a very interesting illustration of some aspects of the scientific method.

Many criticisms of the Bermuda triangle mystery claim that there is no mystery at all. Millions of planes and ships navigate through this area of the ocean without incident. The disappearances must therefore be very rare. But just because they are rare doesn’t mean they did not occur. Many of the disappearances were in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when navigation technology was inferior to what we have today. Now that we have better technology that can explain what happens to vessels that experience trouble, we no longer have unexplained incidents. Some critics attack each example and question the reliability of the documentation.

The assumption that I want to criticize is the one shared by both the critics of and the believers in the Triangle mystery. It is that, if we cannot think of how it happened, then it must have (a) not happened or (b) an explanation outside of existing science. Both the critics and the believers assume that their imaginations can cover all possibilities.

My favorite explanation for the disappearances is the sporadic release of methane gas from underneath the sediments. Decomposing organic matter in the offshore sediments produce methane which, under the pressure of the ocean water, remain in a condensed state. If the pressure is relieved, for example when the water becomes warmer, some of the methane can go back to a gaseous state and erupt from the sediments. As global warming makes the water warmer thus less dense, numerous methane eruptions are occurring in shallow waters. Take, for example, this image that was published in Science in 2017, showing craters from methane releases off the coast of Norway:

Most of these releases are small, but it is possible that some large ones occurred in the twentieth century in the Triangle. Many scientists believe that these massive offshore “burps” contributed to the Permian Extinction 250 million years ago. This illustration is from Penn State:

A methane burp fits the evidence nicely.

  • Almost the entire Triangle is shallow sea with sediments.
  • Methane, diluting the oxygen, would cause engines to fail.
  • The vanishing vessels, if they reported anything, told of extreme disorientation, which could happen if the vessel encountered turbulent methane.
  • The methane would disrupt the sediments, allowing the vessels to sink into them without a trace.
  • This explanation calls for the operation of no processes that we do not already know.

Today, methane is monitored, and if a methane burp caused a vessel to disappear, we would know it. This was not the case in the mid-twentieth century.

This explanation is an example of something that neither critics nor believers had even thought of at the time. Sherlock Holmes was wrong. He said that, once you have discounted all other possibilities, then the one remaining possibility must be right. This is, of course, not true. Scientists and everybody else has to face up to the possibility of “unknown unknowns.” I address this topic in my upcoming book, Scientifically Thinking though I do not use the Bermuda Triangle example.

The foregoing is not an original idea. Though I believe I thought of it independently, many other people have thought of it also.

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