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Climate Crisis

Human-Caused Methane Emissions could be 40% Higher than Previously Estimated

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A recent study published in the scientific journal Nature shows that humans may be responsible for a greater portion of the methane in the atmosphere than previously thought. The report, which came out in Nature’s latest peer-reviewed issue, illustrates how human emissions could account for 25-40% more of the methane in our atmosphere than we expected.

Methane is the greenhouse gas that contributes the most to climate change after carbon dioxide. Emissions of the chemical compound account for around a quarter of the global warming we are experiencing, and it is far more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere, yet disappears much quicker.

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Like our studies of atmospheric CO2, though, scientists and laymen alike have long believed that the methane in our air was a steady balance of human emissions and natural phenomenon. This new report, however, suggests otherwise.

Scientists conducted the experiment by extracting large ice sheets from Greenland. These frozen arctic relics dig into the ground, preserving in ice the chemical condition of Earth’s air over the years. By melting these extracts and analyzing the molecules within, we get a glimpse into what kind of compounds filled our planet in the past.

For this study, the scientists looked at the methane in the ice from the year ~1750 compared to now. In the mid-18th Century, the planet was just on the cusp of wide-scale industrialization, and thus the pollutants from that period gives us an idea of what the world was (chemically) like before the current Anthropocene. What scientists found was that in pre-industrial times, only about 1-5 million tons of methane entered into the atmosphere each year compared to the 45 million tons that annually make their way up there today.

The study is troubling as it shows that human practices are damaging the ecosystem far more than we anticipated.

This 1-5 million pre-industrial figure was quite smaller than expected, and it suggests that the human methane footprint is far more severe than we imagined. Through agriculture and fossil fuel burning, humans are evidently responsible for the vast majority of methane in our skies.

Contrarily, from a more optimistic perspective, it also solidifies that we have greater agency over the amount of methane in the atmosphere. Although we may not have previously known it, we actually have a heightened ability to rein in methane emissions and pave a brighter future for the environment.


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