On Saturday, 8 June, the research vessel Kaiyo Maru No. 7 left the port of Joetsu, in western Japan, to begin a three-year survey of the Sea of Japan — the latest step in a little-known research programme that in a decade or less could profoundly change the international balance of power.
Kaiyo Maru, a 499-ton trawler, is hunting for beds of methane hydrate, a cold, white, sherbet-like substance found off coastlines in Japan and much of the rest of the world. The United States Geological Survey estimates that as much as 2.8 trillion cubic metres of this mixture of frozen water and natural gas may exist. Although only part of this vast deposit is accessible, methane hydrate — ‘ice that burns’ — may be the Earth’s single biggest fossil-fuel source.