Methane, Methane, Where from Art Thou?

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Methane, methane, where from art thou?

Concerned with rising global temperatures and the threat of a substantial "greenhouse" effect in the near future, scientists have watched carefully during the last decade as the atmospheric levels of methane grew each year by 1.5 percent. Because it efficiently traps energy from the earth, methane is an important player in the greenhouse scenario. But scientists are having trouble determining how much the different sources of methane contribute, which is the first step in understanding why this molecule, the chief component of natural gas, is accumulating in the atmosphere. Now, researchers from the Institute of Nuclear Science in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, report that they have cracked part of the methane source problem. About one-third of the methane in the atmosphere comes from so-called fossil sources, they announce in the April 7 NATURE.

Scientists believe that almost all methane comes from two types of biological sources: organisms that were alive a long time ago, and those alive today or recently dead. Fossil methane, formed millions of years ago from decaying plants and animals, is found in pockets of porous rock deep within the earth. When brought to the surface, most fossil methane is burned as a fuel and never enters the atmosphere. However, some escapes into the air during mining operations and natural-gas production. …