New NASA Study Solves Climate Mystery, Confirms Methane Spike Tied to Oil and Gas
By Sharon Kelly
Over the past few years, natural gas has become the primary fuel that America uses to generate electricity, displacing the long-time king of fossil fuels, coal. In 2019, more than a third of America's electrical supply will come from natural gas, with coal falling to a second-ranked 28 percent, the Energy Information Administration predicted this month, marking the growing ascendency of gas in the American power market.
But new peer-reviewed research adds to the growing evidence that the shift from coal to gas isn't necessarily good news for the climate.
A team led by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirmed that the oil and gas industry is responsible for the largest share of the world's rising methane emissions—which are a major factor in climate change—and in the process the researchers resolved one of the mysteries that has plagued climate scientists over the past several years.
That mystery? Since 2006, methane emissions have been rising by about 25 teragrams (a unit of weight so large that NASA notes you'd need more than 200,000 elephants to equal one teragram) every year. But when different researchers sought to pinpoint the sources of that methane, they ran into a problem.
If you added the growing amounts of methane pollution from oil and gas to the rising amount of methane measured from other sources, like microbes in wetlands and marshes, the totals came out too high—exceeding the levels actually measured in the atmosphere. The numbers didn't add up.
It turns out, there was a third factor at play, one whose role was underestimated, NASA's new paper concludes, after reviewing satellite data, ground-level measurements and chemical analyses of the emissions from different sources.
A drop in the acreage burned in fires worldwide between 2006 and 2014 meant that methane from those fires went down far more than scientists had realized. Fire-related methane pollution dropped twice as much as previously believed, the new paper, published in the journal Nature Communications, reports.
Using this data, "the team showed that about 17 teragrams per year of the increase is due to fossil fuels, another 12 is from wetlands or rice farming, while fires are decreasing by about 4 teragrams per year," NASA said in a Jan. 2 press release. "The three numbers combine to 25 teragrams a year—the same as the observed increase."
"A fun thing about this study was combining all this different evidence to piece this puzzle together," lead scientist John Worden of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said in a statement.
Shale Boom, Methane Boom
Less fun, unfortunately: the implications for the climate. Methane is a major greenhouse gas, capable of trapping 86 times as much heat as the same amount of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it hits the Earth's atmosphere. So relatively tiny amounts of methane in the air can pack a massive climate-changing punch.
"The sharp increase in methane emissions correlates closely with the U.S. fracking boom," said Jim Warren, executive director of the climate watchdog group NC WARN. "Leaking and venting of unburned gas—which is mostly methane—makes natural gas even worse for the climate than coal."
The new NASA study is not the first to call attention to the connection between oil and gas and methane leaks. A study in March last year found that natural gas power plants put out between 20 and 120 times more methane pollution than previously believed, due in part to accidental leaks and in part to deliberate "venting" by companies. And as far back as 2011, researchers from Cornell University warned that switching over from coal to gas could be a grave mistake where climate change is concerned.
The NASA study may help settle the science on the oil and gas industry's role in rising methane emissions.
To conduct their research, the scientists examined the methane molecules linked to different sources, focusing on carbon isotopes in the molecules, which helped them match the methane to different sources. Methane molecules rising from wetlands and farms have a relatively small concentration of heavy carbon isotopes, oil and gas-linked methane higher amounts, and methane from fires the most heavy carbon. The scientists also cross-checked their findings by looking at other associated gases, like ethane and carbon monoxide—and the numbers all fell into place.
It turns out that fires worldwide burned up roughly 12 percent less acreage during 2007 to 2014, compared to the prior roughly half-dozen years—but the amount of methane from those fires fell more sharply, plunging nearly twice as fast, measurements from NASA's Terra and Aura satellites revealed.
"There's been a ping-pong game of explanations going back and forth about what might explain this," Penn State University atmospheric scientist Ken Davis told Mashable. "It's a complicated puzzle with a lot of parts, but [the study's conclusions] do seem plausible and likely."
That 2006-2014 lull in fires may be part of a larger trend. Historically, "burning during the past century has been lower than at any time in the past 2000 years," one 2016 study points out, due in large part to the spread of fire suppression techniques.
But don't expect the lower methane emissions from less burning worldwide to last forever. One of the impacts of climate change is to make large wildfires more likely, the Union of Concerned Scientists points out.
"Wildfire seasons (seasons with higher wildfire potential) in the United States are projected to lengthen, with the southwest's season of fire potential lengthening from seven months to all year long," the group said. "Additionally, wildfires themselves are likely to be more severe."
In the meantime, even while fires declined worldwide, methane emissions overall have continued to rise sharply—and, according to NASA's latest research, it turns out pollution linked to the oil and gas industry is responsible for the biggest chunk of that growing problem.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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