Methane emission control crucial to life
You’re a college student, and you’ve just turned on the stove to warm up some soup for a long night of cramming for your finals. Or maybe you’re somebody who neglected to recycle your water bottle last week, because carrying it around all day in the hope of finding a green bin just seemed annoying and inconvenient.
You could also be a farmer, or a coal miner, or a goat, but whatever the case may be, rest assured: you’ve probably added a significant amount of methane to our toasty atmosphere, one that might contain more methane than we’ve ever come to realize.
NPR published findings of a study that has completely changed our estimation of just how much methane is in the atmosphere as a result of U.S. emissions. Basically, we’ve vastly underestimated the girth of our ecological footprint. The study was originally published in an issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences.
“Our numbers for the entire United States are about a factor of 1.5 times larger than the (estimates of) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” said Scot Miller, the study’s co-author and doctoral student in earth sciences at Harvard University.
Now, a 50 percent discrepancy is something we can universally acknowledge as being pretty significant. It really takes knowledge of the magnitude of our low-ball emission estimations, though, to realize the full degree of what such a discrepancy could mean for our climatological future.
First and foremost, methane is a greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, it’s the most prevalent greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, behind only carbon dioxide. Further, a greenhouse gas can be roughly described as something that traps heat in our atmosphere that would otherwise escape through natural processes.
Greenhouse gases trap infared heat from the sun and heat emitted from the Earth. Left unmonitored, they could turn the surface of our planet into something of a cyclically heated hot plate, warming up our oceans, wetlands and four-legged inhabitants past the point of functionality.
The U.S. emits methane in terms of hundreds of millions of tons annually. According to Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, methane was found in 2010 to have an atmospheric abundance of 1.8 parts per million — meaning that it makes up around 0.0018 percent of our atmosphere. For perspective, carbon dioxide makes up around 0.039 percent of our atmosphere.
Now, trust that if you’re wondering why we’re even worrying about something that’s so explicitly negligible, you’re not alone. Most of our policies regarding the mitigation of greenhouses gases involves carbon dioxide, mostly due to the fact that the atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide can exceed several hundred years. Basically, what that means is that CO2 emitted today will probably be around to welcome our great-great-grandchildren in the world, which makes controlling the gas an obvious priority.
In contrast, the atmospheric lifetime of methane is a mere decade. There’s exponentially less methane than carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and that itsy bitsy little presence will only linger around for 10 years or so. It doesn’t make much sense, really, to allocate our precious funds and resources into something that’ll cycle itself out repeatedly in each of our lifetimes.
Methane, however, is also 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That potency means methane will trap 20 times more heat in our atmosphere than CO2. It might not hang around for the party that long, so to speak, but it’s got a much lower tolerance for Shiner than CO2 and won’t hesitate to wreck your coffee table and smash your old Outkast records before bouncing out early.
Its presence might not be as prolonged as CO2’s, but it does its darndest to make that presence known as much as humanly possible.
Taking this into account, it’s also important to realize the sense of “committed warming” that CO2 has placed us under. Today’s efforts to control the emission of CO2 will be beneficial to future generations. We may not see the effects of those changes in our lifetime, but they’ll undoubtedly be there to cool off our long-suffering descendants.
By understanding the pattern of greenhouse gases, it’s now evident why such a gargantuan increase in methane might prove to be mildly catastrophic. An increase in 50 percent — and reported increases in 150 percent above Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas — suggests that our models of predicting climate change might need to be significantly changed.
It also raises the alarming question of how such a discrepancy in measuring national methane emissions could’ve arisen.
Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist with Duke University, cited the ineffectiveness of “bottom-up” measurements in determining atmospheric methane consistencies.
“I think bottom-up measurements are lower because we miss the few percent of sites that are really leaking a lot of gases,” Jackson said. “We probably have 90 percent of oil and gas operations that are pretty clean, and a few percent that leak like a sieve.”
These bottom-up measurements determine how much methane individual oil and gas sites are emitting and then extrapolate that data into a projection of how much methane is in our atmosphere.
“Top-down” measurements, by contrast, measure the amount of methane in the atmosphere but fail to determine which sites are responsible for increases in atmospheric methane.
Jackson explained to NPR that the bottom-up measurement system is desirable, because it allows scientists to figure out just which operations are responsible for the inordinate amount of methane going into the atmosphere. He also explained that bottom-up measurements have been known to report smaller concentrations of atmospheric methane, many times being grossly inaccurate.
UH is no stranger to the climatological issues that we face. Our university has also proven to be one of the most actively engaged institutions in the nation, in regards to minimizing and mitigating our environmental footprint.
When Chancellor and President Renu Khator took charge of the University, she did her best to open up our doors to the outpouring of support that our nation had to offer. In an interview with the Houston Business Journal, Khator cited the generosity of the Bayou City as having allowed her to accomplish so much in so little time.
“The reason for our success, and for my personal success, is Houston. We’ve had several generous gifts,” Khator said. “Without the foundations, corporate and individual support, it would be tough to accomplish the goals we’ve met.”
And boy, has she accomplished some hefty goals. One year after Khator’s arrival, UH purchased the 74 acres of park space now known as the Energy Research Park. ERP’s research plan includes the development of low-to-non-emission energy sources.
“The University is (hoping to work alongside) world-class programs designed to train the next generation of workers in wind, solar and electric power generation and industrial partners who will be working with our researchers to develop new manufacturing techniques,” said Carl Carlucci, UH Vice President for Administration and Finance.
Encouraging student involvement in such activism, the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics recently hosted a four-part energy symposium series. They consisted of moderated debates over climate change, renewable energy and governmental support, the exportation of liquefied natural gas and hydraulic fracturing.
It’s a bold invigoration we’ve been given, and much of that thanks should go to Khator as well as to our thriving home that is the city of Houston. Efforts like these help to make us one of the most ecologically aware universities today — however, it’ll be a true test of longevity if these efforts can help the lives of tomorrow’s students and not just bolster today’s students’ ecological awareness.
Senior staff columnist Cara Smith is a communications junior and may be reached at [email protected]