Quantcast
Energy
Animation showing percent of acres burning worldwide. NASA / GSFC / SVS

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.

Missing Methane

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.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored

How Big Is Your Environmental Footprint?

If you want to make a positive change this Earth Day but don't know where to start, one of best things you can do is take an honest look at your environmental footprint. For instance, how much water are you wasting? How much plastic are you throwing out? How much planet-warming carbon are you producing?

Luckily, there are many online calculators that crunch through your consumption habits. While the final tally might be daunting, it's the first step in living more sustainably.

Keep reading... Show less
Shopping at farmers markets can help minimize your waste.

6 Simple Tips to Reduce Waste So Every Day Is Earth Day

Earth Day 2018 is focused on the all-important theme of reducing plastic litter and pollution. Of course, we shouldn't just reduce our plastic footprint, we should try to reduce waste in all shapes, sizes and forms. It's said that the average American generates a staggering 4 pounds of trash every day—but you don't have to be part of that statistic.

Here are six entirely manageable tips and tricks to help you cut waste.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Earth Day Tips From the EcoWatch Team

At EcoWatch, every day is Earth Day. We don't just report news about the environment—we aim to make the world a better place through our own actions. From conserving water to cutting waste, here are some tips and tricks from our team on living mindfully and sustainably.

Lorraine Chow, reporter

Favorite Product: Dr. Bronner's Castile soap

It's Earth-friendly, lasts for months and can be used as soap, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner and even mouthwash (but I wouldn't recommend that).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Will Rose / Greenpeace

7 Things You Can Do to Create a Plastic-Free Future

By Jen Fela

We're celebrating a huge moment in the global movement for a plastic-free future: More than one million people around the world have called on big corporations to do their part to end single-use plastics.

Now we're taking the next big step. We're setting an ambitious new goal: A Million Acts of Blue.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular

5 Environmental Victories to Inspire You This Earth Day

Planet Earth is at a crisis point. Researchers say we have to begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 if we want to meet the temperature goals outlined in the Paris agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change.

The work to be done can seem overwhelming. A survey published this week found that only 6 percent of Americans think we will succeed in reducing global warming.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A fin whale surfacing in Greenland. Aqqa Rosing-Asvid / CC BY 2.0

Iceland to Resume Killing Endangered Fin Whales

By Kitty Block

Iceland seems to be the most confused of nations when it comes to whales. On the one hand it attracts international tourists from all over the world to go out and see whales as part of their encounters with Iceland's many natural wonders. On the other hand it kills whales for profit, with some portion of the kill even being fed to some of the same tourists in restaurants and cafes.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
A.millepora in the Great Barrier Reef. Petra Lundgren, Juan C Vera, Lesa Peplow, Stephanie Manel and Madeleine JH van Oppen

Hope for Great Barrier Reef? New Study Shows Genetic Diversity of Coral Could Extend Our Chance to Save It

A study published Wednesday had some frightening news for the Great Barrier Reef—the iconic marine ecosystem is at "unprecedented" risk of collapse due to climate change after a 2016 heat wave led to the largest mass coral bleaching event in the reef's history.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Lyft

Lyft Announces Carbon Neutrality Drive

Lyft will make all of its rides carbon neutral starting immediately by investing millions of dollars in projects that offset its emissions, the company announced Thursday.

The ridesharing service, which is part of the We Are Still coalition, provides more than 10 million rides worldwide each week. "We feel immense responsibility for the profound impact that Lyft will have on our planet," founders John Zimmer and Logan Green wrote in a Medium post.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!