Climate change: Why are global methane levels spiking?


13 December, 2016

Two different papers, published this week in the journals Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters, revealed emissions of methane have spiked drastically in the past several years and are getting close to an internationally identified worst-case situation for greenhouse gas emissions. Unchecked, this increase could see temperatures rise as much as 6 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), speeding sea level rise and more extreme weather.

The papers also described strategies for curbing methane emissions down the road, with a focus on food industries, which comprise approximately one-third of overall man-made emissions. Marielle Saunois, lead author of the study and assistant professor at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin, says the high level of methane emissions could threaten worldwide efforts to limit global warming.

The surge in methane emissions is making the battle against climate change even more hard, worldwide experts warned. In that two-year period, concentrations shot up by 10 or more parts per billion annually. In other words, it can do major damage, but getting it under control could tip the climate change equation relatively rapidly. By contrast, global Carbon dioxide emissions have flattened somewhat of late, giving hope that the rise in its atmospheric concentration (currently just above 400 parts per million) might also slow.

"The methane being released now, at an accelerating rate, could easily negate the carbon reductions we are making".

But industrialisation and a surging human population have upset a long-standing natural balance, leaving an excess of both heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

But even as Carbon dioxide output has started to plateau, methane (CH4) - which is responsible for about 20 per cent of the increase in global temperatures - is soaring.

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They say research shows that the growth of Carbon dioxide emissions has flattened out in recent years, just as methane's seem to be soaring. Another human activity producing methane are rice paddies, which also have increased in the past decade. People are responsible for 60 percent of all methane emissions globally. There is a lesson to learn, Jackson said. About a third of this is due to the fossil fuel industry. "Agricultural emissions need similar scrutiny". However, methane has a much stronger greenhouse effect. In turn, some of the methane is stored in sinks like permafrost soil and destroyed in the atmosphere by hydroxyl radicals. Unlike CO2, where we have well-described power plants, nearly everything in the global methane budget is diffuse. Almost 100 scientists from around the world compiled the data for the Global Methane Budget, which shows the biggest spike in methane concentrations in the atmosphere in 20 years.

One development that should help scientists as they grapple with the methane issue is the launch of new satellites.

Possible solutions for agriculture include breeding rice to require less flooding, altering feed for livestock to lessen intestinal processes that create methane, promoting less meat-intensive diets and deploying more farm bio-digesters.

But coal-fired plants and fracking leaks are not sufficient to account for the jump in emissions.

Pinpointing where those methane emissions are coming from, however, isn't easy. The results for methane "are worrisome but provide an immediate opportunity for mitigation that complements efforts for carbon dioxide".

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