GThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday that lobal atmospheric levels for the short-lived but potent greenhouse gas methane rose to a new record last year. This alarming development is worrying because methane plays a significant role in climate change.
Last year, the preliminary methane airborne concentration jumped 17 parts to billions. It reached 1895.7 parts/ billion. It’s the second year in a row that methane rose at a record rate with 2020 going up 15.3 ppb over 2019, according to NOAA. Lindsay Lan from NOAA and University of Colorado, an atmospheric scientist, stated that methane levels now exceed 720 parts per million preindustrial levels.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that methane contributes significantly to climate changes. This has led to a roughly 0.9 degree Fahrenheit increase (0.5 degrees Celsius), in temperatures since the 19th Century. Methane has caused approximately 50% more warming than carbon dioxide.
“This trend of accelerating increase in methane is extremely disturbing,” said Cornell University methane researcher Robert Howarth.
Methane traps heat 25 times better than carbon dioxide. Lan stated that methane only survives for nine years, rather than the thousands of years of carbon dioxide. Because it doesn’t last in the air long, many nations last year agreed to target methane for quick emission cuts as low hanging fruit in the global efforts to limit future warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius (2.7 or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times. Global warming has reached 1.1-1.2 degrees Celsius. This is about 2–2.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
“To limit warming to well-below 2C this century, we need to cut our methane emissions dramatically, and today we are clearly moving in the wrong direction,” climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of Stripe and Berkeley Earth said in an email. “Cutting methane has strong immediate climate benefits, as it is the only greenhouse gas for which emission reductions can quickly cool the climate (versus slowing or stopping the rate of warming).”
Since 1983, NOAA has kept track of methane in the atmosphere.
Lan said early signs point more to natural causes for the methane jump, because of La Nina, the natural and temporary cooling of parts of the Pacific that change weather worldwide, but it’s still early. La Nina makes it more rainy in certain tropical areas. The two consecutive years of record-breaking increases in La Nina indicate that methane is escaping from the wetlands.
The natural gas methane has been used more frequently as an energy source. Many methane comes from livestock and human-generated farming, but also from landfills. Scientists also fear future release of trapped methane under the ocean and in frozen Arctic land, but there’s no indication that’s happening on a large scale.
Rob Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist said that the key question here is whether or not this rising trend is contributing to climate change.
“It seems to be something else instead of COVID,” Lan said. It is possible to avoid a pandemic by calculating high levels for 2020, and even greater levels for 2021 when lockdowns are relaxed.
Howarth stated that methane rises are a result of both agriculture and fossil fuels. But he said, “my research strongly points toward fossil fuels as being the largest cause of the increase since 2008, with increase emissions from shale gas production from fracking in the U.S. being a major part of that.”
Lan examined the chemical compositions last year to determine where methane is being emitted steadily since 2006. She said that the chemical signature showed fossil fuels were not more guilty than agriculture or natural wetland emission.
NOAA reported that carbon dioxide levels increased by 2.66ppm over 2020 last year. This is one of the highest increases in recent history, but it’s not the best. In 2021, carbon dioxide levels averaged 414.7 parts per billion. About 280 parts per Million was the preindustrial level. NOAA reported that the levels of carbon dioxide have reached their peak since approximately 4.3 million years ago when sea level was 75 feet (23 m) higher, and temperatures averaged about 7 degrees Fahrenheit (3.9 degrees Celsius).
“Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace,” said NOAA chief Rick Spinrad said in a statement.
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