Palaeoceanographic data have been used to suggest that methane hydrates play a significant role in global climate change. The mechanism by which methane is released during periods of global warming is, however, poorly understood. In particular, the size and role of the free-gas zone below gas-hydrate provinces remain relatively unconstrained, largely because the base of the free-gas zone is not a phase boundary and has thus defied systematic description. Here we evaluate the possibility that the maximum thickness of an interconnected free-gas zone is mechanically regulated by valving caused by fault slip in overlying sediments. Our results suggest that a critical gas column exists below most hydrate provinces in basin settings, implying that these provinces are poised for mechanical failure and are therefore highly sensitive to changes in ambient conditions. We estimate that the global free-gas reservoir may contain from one-sixth to two-thirds of the total methane trapped in hydrate. If gas accumulations are critically thick along passive continental slopes, we calculate that a 5 °C temperature increase at the sea floor could result in a release of ∼2,000 Gt of methane from the free-gas zone, offering a mechanism for rapid methane release during global warming events.
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