Why Methane Is CO2's Evil Stepsister (And Why We Should Care)

Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas that gets tossed around in most climate change conversations.

But methane (CH4) is making its way into the mainstream spotlight.

Here are some things that are happening:

Climate change is warming up areas that were typically cold enough for permafrost. Permafrost—soil that’s frozen year round and comprises 24 percent of Northern Hemisphere land (8.8 millions square miles)—is no longer “perma.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Some permafrost that’s been frozen for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years is thawing (i.e., no longer so frosty).

277 billion tonnes of carbon are contained in the peatlands in the permafrost zone of the Northern Hemisphere. That’s equivalent to 1,017 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). Guess where that’s gonna end up when thawing occurs?

But, thawing and decomposing permafrost will lead to relatively more methane than carbon dioxide emissions, which could lead to more serious climate impacts than previously thought, a study said.

To top it off, a newly discovered microbe happens to thrive in thawing permafrost, blooming like algal blooms. Methane is a byproduct of its metabolism. Oops! This new microbe stuff is adding fuel to the fire and, one could say, the microbe’s booming and blooming lifestyle is indirectly caused by humans (hey—we’re the ones who started throwing all those extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which has thrown off climate cycles according to 97 percent of climate scientists).

Methane is also released in heavy doses from factory farms in the form of cow belches and flatulence.

And it’s emitted in the production and transport of coal, natural gas and oil, not to mention the anaerobic decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills. Garbage in, garbage out.

So what’s all the “evil stepsister” name-calling of poor old methane?

Why is methane such a big deal for climate change?

Globally, over 60 percent of total methane emissions come from human activities. Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. from human activities. We’re the enabler here.

Methane—a more powerful greenhouse gas—is 33 times more effective in heating the Earth than carbon dioxide. Need I say more?

Listen to the latest Green Divas myEARTH360 Report for more on methane and other environmental news.

Bonus video about permafrost:



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