Globe-Warming Methane Emissions May Be Canceling Gains on Carbon Dioxide

By Meador, Ron | MinnPost.com, December 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

Globe-Warming Methane Emissions May Be Canceling Gains on Carbon Dioxide


Meador, Ron, MinnPost.com


Atmospheric levels of methane, long considered the second most threatening of the globe-warming greenhouse gases, have been surging for almost a decade -- and at a rate that accelerated steeply in 2014 and 2015.

This is the conclusion of two new papers published Monday, and a presentation Tuesday to the American Geophysical Union's meeting in San Francisco, in which researchers conclude that that the methane acceleration may be canceling out the benefits of carbon dioxide's recent slowdown.

Also, that the current emission rates lie far outside the assumptions of all models and forecasts about the pace of global warming and its climate impacts.

A lead author of both papers is Rob Jackson, an earth scientist from Stanford University, who has become known in recent years for his work on many facets of the methane problem. He takes a more complex view than some of the contributions from oil and natural gas production, while raising alarms about leaks from municipal supply lines, and stressing that methane routinely receives too little attention compared to CO2. As Stanford's announcement of the papers points out,

Methane's warming potential is about 28 times greater [than CO2] on a 100-year horizon, and its lifespan in the atmosphere is much shorter. In other words, it can do major damage, but getting it under control could tip the climate change equation relatively rapidly.

"Methane presents the best opportunity to slow climate change quickly," said Jackson. "Carbon dioxide has a longer reach, but methane strikes faster."

But methane also presents more complex control problems than CO2 for multiple reasons, these two in particular:

* While science has a good understanding of atmospheric carbon's sources, especially emissions from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, methane emissions come from a range of manmade and natural sources that complicate attribution -- not to mention control strategies. Same for methane "sinks" that remove it from the atmosphere.

* Measurement, too, remains a little rough, which adds additional layers of approximation to most efforts to attribute emissions and design controls.

Jackson and the papers' main author, Marielle Saunois of France's Laboratoire des Sciences du Climate et de l'Environnement, are leading voices in the circle of scientists concerned with methane. They are also leaders of the Global Methane Budget project, which every two years publishes an updated report on methane levels in the atmosphere.

This year's findings were was published in the open-access journal Earth System Science Data, and a separate discussion of the findings and their implications was published simultaneously as an editorial in Environmental Research Letters.

A tenfold rise in emissions rate

Before the rise of industrialization, atmospheric levels of methane are thought to have been in the neighborhood of 700 parts per billion. The new papers put the current level at 1,840 ppb, but the size of that increase is not as significant as the recent growth trend.

From 2000 to 2006, methane levels didn't change much, increasing about one-half part per billion per year. But that rate grew tenfold in the next nine years, averaging 6.9 ppb from 2007 to 2015, and reaching 12.5 ppb in 2014 before subsiding a bit to 9.9 ppb the following year.

Jackson and Saunois feel that about 60 percent of total emissions worldwide can be classed as anthropogenic, with agriculture contributing about one-third of that; major sectors are beef and rice production because of breakdown processes in the cattle gut and the paddies' muck. Energy production and mining are thought to produce another third, and the rest comes from sources that include landfills and the burning of both fossil and biofuels.

But there are also many natural sources where human influence is essentially absent, like seabed seeps and decomposition in wetlands, or less direct, like permafrost melt. …

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