Methane emissions are creating widespread havoc for researchers. Recent studies are showing increasing levels of methane in the atmosphere but this time they are not coming from fossil fuels but rather from natural sources.
Latest laboratory tests suggest the planet itself is emitting more methane as it is warming up. According to scientific discovery, the more Earth is warming up, the more methane it is starting to release which leads to a vicious cycle in which warming triggers more warming that becomes self-perpetuating.
“If you think of fossil fuel emissions as putting the world on a slow boil, methane is a blow torch that is cooking us today… If we let the earth warm enough to start warming itself, we are going to lose this battle,” says Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
Atmospheric methane like most greenhouse gasses has been accelerating in the atmosphere due to man-made climate change. In the past 5-6 years, however, scientists have noticed that methane emissions levels changed from accelerated to surged.
Atmospheric methane had its highest growth rate ever recorded by modern instruments in 2020, with that record broken again in 2021. A closer examination revealed intriguing details why that has been happening.
Who Is To Blame?
Wetlands and cattle appear to be the biggest culprits for the higher levels of naturally produced methane in the air. The most significant growth seems to be coming from the tropics with the global increase in cattle-raising also fuelling that growth.
According to data, 85% of the increase in atmospheric methane since 2007 is due to microbial sources and about half of that comes from the tropics, in particular from wetlands. As wetlands get wetter that leads to more methane emissions as the microbes that produce methane have more organic matter on which to feed.
Similar is the case with permafrost emissions in the Arctic. The permafrost contains around 1,500bn tonnes of carbon. As it melts, that carbon can be turned into methane by micro-organisms known as methanogens. Microbes that produce methane also thrive on all the newly thawed organic material at the bottom of new lakes formed when permafrost melts.
“In interior Alaska we’ve seen a nearly 40 per cent increase in lake area since the 1980s, of new thermokarst lakes forming… Those lakes emit methane at least 10 times higher than a normal lake, they are hotspots,” warns Katey Walter Anthony, Professor of ecology and biogeochemistry at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
What Can Be Done To Cut Methane Emissions?
At the moment, however, tropics are the leading source of methane emissions, much more than the Arctic. What governments around the world can do to curb methane emissions is to reduce the amount produced from human-caused sources. According to data, around half of methane emissions come from anthropogenic sources, and half from natural sources.
The Global Methane Pledge launched at the COP26 climate summit last year calls for collectively cutting methane emissions by 30% by the end of this decade. According to a May 2021 report from the UN Environment Programme, using existing technologies, anthropogenic emissions could be reduced by 45% by 2030, avoiding 0.3C of warming by the 2040s.
The quickest ways methane could be cut are in the fossil fuel sector. These methods are special venting installed in coal mines, early detection of gas leaks, or reducing methane venting during oil and gas production. Those measures could decrease methane emissions by more than 40 million tonnes a year, according to the UN report.
Pressured by circumstances, researchers now are starting to study methane removal or ways to pull methane directly from the air. The ideas are mostly hypothetical at this point, however, they include increasing the amount of chemical sinks in the atmosphere, for example by adding tiny iron-oxide particles to the air. Other approaches are using methane-eating bacteria to act as a “filter” for methane, such as in dairy farms.
Even though methane rises in priority, according to some scientists funding to monitor it is lacking. “There really hasn’t been a big expansion of our network for the last 15 or 20 years,” says researcher Edward Dlugokencky.
As methane keeps surprising, the scientific world is embracing ways to extend knowledge and address the issue. Federal funding and efforts in the area of reducing methane emissions are now more critical than ever to keep our chances of limiting the worst consequences of climate change.