Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's a gas!

Two scientists have announced that they have solved the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle.

The Bermuda Triangle, for the benefit of the three people in the civilized world who haven't heard of this phenomenon, is the geographical region bounded by Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico, in which (according to one website) "an astonishing number of mysterious disappearances have occurred, of both ships and aircraft."

Myself, I thought it had been solved years ago, the solution being that the Bermuda Triangle doesn't exist.  Well, the place exists, but if you look at the actual documented cases of craft disappearances, there is the same loss rate as any other equally traveled, equal-sized blob of ocean.

The problem is, because of the claims by woo-woos of its being a great big mystery, you have the problem of exaggeration or actual faking of the anecdotal evidence.  In fact, the whole preposterous idea was brought to the public's attention by a fellow named Charles Berlitz, who wrote a bestselling book on the subject in 1974.  Berlitz's book, upon examination, is full of sensationalized hype, reports taken out of context, omitted information, and outright lies.  Larry Kusche, whose painstaking collection of data finally proved once and for all that there were proportionally no more ships and planes going down there than anywhere else in the world, said about Berlitz, "If Berlitz were to report that a ship was red, the chances of it being some other color is almost a certainty."

So, I thought that the explanation of the Mystery as being Not Really All That Mysterious was pretty satisfying, and had closed the book on the Bermuda Triangle.  I hardly gave it a second thought as we flew right through the middle of it on our trip to Trinidad last month.

Apparently, however, the Legend Lives On, and Dr. Joseph Monaghan of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and his graduate student David May, have written a paper on the subject, and it got accepted to (of all places) The American Journal of Physics.  And their explanation is:

Oceanic flatulence.

Now far be it from me to discount the potentially devastating consequences of toxic flatulence.  I own a dog, Grendel, whose output could solve the world's natural gas shortage.  He has been known to clear a room at one go, all the while wearing an expression of feigned innocence that seems to say, "What?  What's wrong with you guys?  You think that was me?"

Monaghan and May claim that what happens in the Bermuda Triangle is much worse than the canine variety, hard though that may be for anyone who knows Grendel to comprehend.  They claim that what happens there is that the ocean floor is covered with a material called "frozen methane hydrate," which under certain conditions can generate huge methane gas bubbles.  As the bubbles rise, and the pressure of the surrounding seawater becomes less, they expand, displacing more and more water as they go, and when they finally reach the surface, you basically have the Colossal Sea Fart of Doom.  Any ship caught in this situation would clearly capsize and sink; a plane flying through it might have engine failure.

I have three problems, of increasing difficulty, with this theory.

First -- any event like this, where you have a gigantic displacement of water, should generate a tsunami.  If Monaghan and May's ideas are right, every time there has been a disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle, the east coast of Florida should have been hit with a gigantic wave shortly thereafter.  There is no evidence of any such thing.  Even given a bubble that is just big enough to engulf a ship, you would expect some sort of shock wave to propagate outward from the site, and to register with observers on the shore, if not wash them away entirely.

Second, Monaghan and May are acting like frozen methane hydrates are only found in the Bermuda Triangle region, when in fact, it's kind of everywhere on the deep ocean floor.  The lion's share of it is made by anaerobic bacteria called methanogens, which by some estimates are the most numerous organisms on earth.  So if Monaghan and May's theory solves the Bermuda Triangle Mystery, it opens up a bigger question, namely the Entire Ocean Mystery.  If frozen methane hydrate explosions account for the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, why don't we see them happening everywhere?

Third, we must keep coming back to the question of whether there really is a statistically higher disappearance/plane crash/shipwreck rate there than there is anywhere else.  And Kusche and others have concluded that the answer is: no.  So it very much remains to be seen whether there is anything there to explain.

There you have it.  As much as it would appeal to the 7th graders of the world to have a reason to discuss oceanic farts in science class, my feeling is that this one is a non-starter.  So if you were planning on that trip to the Caribbean, there's no particular reason to worry, or to stock up on gas masks or extra-large bottles of Beano.  But perhaps now that Monaghan and May are looking around for new research topics, they can come over and see if they can figure out what Grendel's problem is.

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