"The clathrate gun hypothesis
is the popular name given to the hypothesis that increases in sea temperatures (and/or drops in sea levels) can trigger the sudden release of methane
from methane clathrate
compounds buried in seabeds
and that are contained within seabed permafrost
which, because methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas
, leads to further temperature rise and further methane clathrate destabilization – in effect initiating a runaway process
as irreversible, once started, as the firing of a gun.
In its original form, the hypothesis proposed that the "clathrate gun" could cause abrupt runaway warming on a timescale less than a human lifetime. It was thought to be responsible for warming events in and at the end of the last glacial maximum, however this is now thought to be unlikely.
However, there is stronger evidence that runaway methane clathrate breakdown may have caused drastic alteration of the ocean environment (such as ocean acidification and ocean stratification) and of the atmosphere of earth on a number of occasions in the past, over timescales of tens of thousands of years. These events include the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum 56 million years ago, and most notably the Permian–Triassic extinction event, when up to 96% of all marine species became extinct, 252 million years ago.