Saturday, January 31, 2015

Climate Change Part 14: Methane 2

Note: This program first aired January 10, 2015.
Last week we introduced a key non carbon dioxide green house gas, methane. There are several naturally occurring sources of methane, a gas that is produced by anaerobic bacteria when organic matter decays.

Methane is a fossil carbon based fuel, and is the main constituent of natural gas, so when we burn it, just like when we burn any carbon based fuel, one of the waste products is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a major green house gas, meaning as we increase concentrations of it in the atmosphere, we create conditions that prevent the escape of infrared radiation (also known as sensible heat) from Earth’s climate system (that being the atmosphere and the ocean). When more heat is trapped than escapes, then we have a system that is warming. That is the current climate change scenario in a nut shell, and the combustion of methane plays a role.

Methane plays a second, and more significant role in climate change by being a green house gas itself.  The methane molecule, just like the carbon dioxide molecule, the water molecule, the nitrous oxide molecule and various other fluorine containing and halogenated industrial compounds, absorbs specific wavelengths of infrared radiation. Water is by far the most important green house gas, in that it traps the widest range of infrared wavelengths emitted by the Earth back towards space. And remember, the green house effect that results from these various atmospheric gasses is what makes our planet livable, so it’s a good thing. The issue currently is that the proportions of the green house gasses in the atmosphere are changing, resulting in more radiation being trapped down here in the lower atmosphere, so things are heating up on the surface of the earth. I said that water vapor traps the widest range of infrared wavelengths, but it doesn’t absorb all of them. There are gaps, or windows in the water vapor absorption spectrum. In the absence of other green house gasses, it is through these wavelength windows that some heat escapes the atmosphere. Some of these gaps are partially filled by the other greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, and methane.

On a per molecule basis, methane absorbs a large amount of infrared radiation, so you often hear that it is something like 40 times as powerful as carbon dioxide gas in terms of its greenhouse warming potential. Some studies have linked methane releases to major warming events like the PETM (or Paleo Eocene Thermal Maximum) or mass extinctions like the end Permian. Methane is different than most other non water vapor green house gasses in that it breaks down relatively quickly, usually within a decade of emission. In the atmosphere it is oxidized, which essentially does the same thing chemically as combusting it, so when methane goes away, carbon dioxide and water are left, and we already know those are both green house gasses.
In the big scheme of things, methane makes up a very small percentage of green house gasses, and because it oxidizes so quickly, some scientists down play its role in climate change. Others see it as a great place to start mitigation efforts, because the effect of reducing emissions of methane can be felt within a decade, due to its short lifespan. As we have learned, there are many natural sources of methane. However, at this point there are many more anthropogenic sources of methane emissions than natural ones. These sources are industrial and agricultural and are somewhat unavoidable components of modern society. Landfills, the end point for much of our waste stream, are a huge source. When land fills are created and then capped, they become anaerobic environments, full of organic matter—perfect incubators for the creation of methane. Some forward thinking land fill operators actually capture that land fill gas and burn it to create heat or electricity. Methane comes from a variety of agricultural sources, including artificial wetlands where rice is grown, and ruminant livestock as well as manure. The oil, gas and coal industry itself is a large source of methane emissions, coming mainly from leaks in infrastructure, and directly from wells and mines. The anthropogenic effects of methane emissions can be compounded by a positive feedback loop that was recently quantified; Methanogenic bacteria are strongly temperature dependent, so the warmer it gets, the more methane they will make. In other words the warmer climate gets, the more active wetland bacteria are, the more methane is emitted, the warmer it gets. It is this effect that causes some scientists to link methane emissions to specific rapid climate change events in the geologic record.

The consensus in the climate science community seems to be that issue is the carbon dioxide, and that is where we should be directing our energy. At the same time however, methane needs to stay on the table, with a particular eye to all those methane hydrates at the bottom of the ocean. Ocean temperatures are warming, particularly deep ocean temperatures, which means that things could get very weird very fast in the climate system. Methane remains the wild card here, one that bears watching in the years to come.


Science Daily digest here on the study that quantified the “the warmer it gets the more methane we get” positive feedback loop:

Even high school students preparing for their school exams need to know about combustion chemistry:

Old archived science blog, but it has good info:

More about the nitty gritty of the bond chemistry that makes green house gasses work:

Google “sources of methane” and take a look at the images. You will see a wide variety of pie charts, with huge variation in what they show. Most show anthropogenic sources as nearly ¾ of the methane emissions, the methane hydrates that make up the huge volume of fossil fuels on Earth aren’t being emitted, so they aren’t included on these tallies (except for where they are emitted, in thus far relatively small amounts in coastal oceans and some high latitude lakes).