When we talk about global warming, you think carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main culprit to blame, and you’re not far from right. That global moment when people troop out to the streets demanding government intervention to fight against climate change, hoping Congress passes a bill against CO2 and it saves our planet. Then CO2 will be like, “Hey guys, I’m not the only one to blame.” Poor thing! It’s not. Dear friends, ever heard of methane? You have, but had no idea it’s another greenhouse gas that’s far more dangerous than CO2 is.
Related media: Methane: The Greenhouse Gas We Can No Longer Ignore
Whence Cometh Methane?
CO2 is not the only cause of global warming. Period! And about a quarter of the effect is the consequence of another greenhouse gas, methane. It’s about 28 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the planet. For 20 years of subsequent emissions, a ton of methane causes 84 times more damage than a ton of CO2 does. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are now two and a half times more than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
Although fossil fuels are to blame, most emissions are a result of belching cattle, agricultural burning, and several natural ecosystems. Sounds threatening? However, the good news is, there is not enough methane in the atmosphere to cause significant damage — about 1,800 parts per billion, that’s like two cups of water inside a pool. Don’t worry.
But here’s the catch: whenever a cattle burps or passes gas, a little bit of methane is released into the atmosphere, and there are swamps, glaciers in Antarctica, and other human activities that also release significant amounts of methane, too. These are 200 times less concentrated than CO2 in the atmosphere, but methane’s molecular structure makes it good at absorbing heat — a little bit more could spell great havoc.
Alarming Greenhouse Gases
In comparison, methane is relatively fleeting to other greenhouse gases like CO2 — it decays slowly, and could last about a decade. So adding just a little more methane to the atmosphere can have a huge impact on how much and how fast the planet warms up. According to estimates, cutting down on human-caused emissions of methane for the next 30 years could cut down 0.18 degrees off the average global temperature by 2050.
Another catch: with so many sources at our disposal, the atmosphere is constantly being fed with methane as we speak. Roughly 60 percent of methane sources in the atmosphere are human-caused, scientists estimate; whereas the rest existed before humans started their carbon footprints.
Methane Sources: Natural And Manmade
Natural emissions of methane arise from soggy sources which include wetlands like bogs. Microbes that thrive in still, oxygen-deprived areas spew out methane instead. By contrast, about a third of all methane in our atmosphere arises from wetlands. Other natural sources arise from the ground naturally near oil and gas deposits, and volcanoes. However, excluding wetlands, only ten percent of the total emissions make up natural sources each year.
On the flip side, human-influenced sources make up the majority of methane in the atmosphere, if you thought as much. Aforementioned, cattle and other grazers contribute a significant amount of methane to the atmosphere. How much? These grazers host microbes in their guts that help them break down and absorb the nutrients from tough grasses. These microbes produce methane as a by-product which gets released as cattle belch on both ends.
There are approximately 1.4 billion cattle in the world — and that number increases as demand for beef and dairy increases. The dung of cattle and other grazers tend to host more of these microbes, producing even more methane. Altogether, grazers contribute about 40 percent of the annual methane budget. That’s how much.
Other agricultural activities also contribute significantly to our methane footprints, too. Rice paddies are a lot like wetlands, as they get flooded with calm water low in oxygen, they serve as a methane-producing habitat for microbes. Some scientists estimate that methane concentrations that rose rapidly in ice cores trapped in Antarctica were a result of when rice production took off in Asia.
Methane also leaks into the atmosphere through oil drilling sites and refineries. Recent studies estimate that wells in the United States alone are producing roughly 60 percent more methane than previously estimated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Another liable source is waste. What else? Microbes found at landfill sites and sewage treatment plants munch on debris left over by humans. This contributes about 14 percent of the methane annual footprint in the US alone. Globally, the energy industry contributes about a quarter of the annual methane budget.
Methane: The Past And Into The Future
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Fri, Oct 08, 2021.