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The amount of methane in the atmosphere has been increasing ever since. And nobody really knows why. As the years plod on and the methane piles up, solving this mystery has taken on increasing urgency. Over a year time frame, methane traps 86 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. It is responsible for about a quarter of total atmospheric warming to date. Methane is not. Humans have been producing methane for thousands of years, by clearing land with fires, raising cattle, and growing rice.

Thanks to air bubbles trapped in ice cores taken from Antarctica , we know that the global average methane concentration in the atmosphere has nearly tripled in response. Because it lasts only about a decade in the atmosphere, cutting methane is a relatively fast-acting lever for slowing climate change. Scientists continue to offer competing hypotheses to explain the global uptick, and there is no shortage of potential suspects.

Humans are directly responsible for about 60 percent of global emissions of methane. It seeps from rotting food waste in landfills, from anaerobic lagoons of pig manure, from rice paddies and exposed coal seams. Livestock belch it out as a byproduct of their digestion. It streams out of the vast metallic exoskeleton of oil and gas wells, pumping stations, pipelines, and refineries that entwine the globe.

The balance comes from natural sources—wetlands, rivers and lakes, wildfires, termites, geological seeps, thawing permafrost.

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Wetlands are the largest single source, contributing about 30 percent of total methane emissions globally. As it happens, they are also the biggest source of uncertainty when it comes to the carbon budget, according to Benjamin Poulter, a NASA researcher and contributor to the Global Carbon Project, an international consortium of scientists that publishes one of the most widely cited estimates of the global methane budget.

Are some thresholds being passed? Any convincing explanation needs to answer three questions. What explains the long-term increase in methane levels over the past 40 years? Why was there a pause? And why was there such an abrupt surge after ? Only three elements of the global methane budget are large enough to be plausible culprits: microbial emissions from livestock, agriculture, and wetlands ; fossil fuel emissions; and the chemical process by which methane is scrubbed from the atmosphere.

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The first theory to gain traction pinned the blame on fossil fuels, based on some suspicious timing: The use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—a method of harvesting buried hydrocarbons that involves blasting deep layers of rock with a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals—surged in the US oil and gas industry right around the time atmospheric methane levels shot up. Other scientists, however, are convinced that growing herds of livestock, which produce methane-rich belches and manure—are to blame.

Some researchers pore over satellite data for evidence that methane production from natural sources, such as wetlands and wildfires, is changing. This atmospheric removal process may be weakening, though, possibly because OH levels are declining due to reactions with other anthropogenic pollutants. Of course, it could be a complex combination of all of these factors.

Rather, they say, the pause in growth from to is the true anomaly. If so, then methane will keep on accumulating, like the water in a bathtub with an open faucet and a plugged drain.

These ongoing scientific disputes reveal the problem at the heart of the methane mystery: Multiple stories can be made to neatly fit the available evidence. To sort through it all, scientists must balance the information provided by various categories of clues.

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Top-down estimates are based on observations using sensors on towers, aircraft, or satellites, and models that account for the downwind transport of emissions from sources and chemical reactions with other components of the atmosphere. Tracers also offer important clues. Researchers rely on easier-to-measure proxies to make inferences about changes in sources or sinks of methane. For instance, some have pointed to observations of increasing ethane concentrations to argue that fossil fuel extraction is the dominant driver of the methane spike. Then there are the isotopes.


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Methane emitted by microbial sources also known as biogenic tends to be lighter, with less of the carbon isotope C13 relative to C12, whereas methane from fossil fuels thermogenic and from burning biomass tends to be isotopically heavier. That can potentially winnow down the list of suspects. Yet each type of clue has its limits. Recent work by Kort and others has called into question the reliability of ethane as a useful, consistent tracer of methane.

Ethane-to-methane ratios vary widely across different geological basins, and the amount of ethane extracted from natural gas changes depending on its market value as a petrochemical feedstock. Not everyone is convinced by the isotope data, either. Some sources share the same set of isotopic fingerprints, making it hard to distinguish between certain fossil and microbial sources. Bruhwiler concedes that there is uncertainty in the isotope record, and very few studies have measured the isotopes of methane from cattle and other ruminants, or bubbling out of wetlands.

But she argues that isotopes of fossil fuel methane occupy a very narrow range of signatures, limited in its overlap with microbial sources. Amidst all this uncertainty, there is one part of the global methane budget that is more clearly quantified: emissions from US oil and gas production. In the early s, Hamburg was a professor of environmental science at Brown University. For a forest ecology course he taught, he drove students out to a field site each week in a natural-gas-powered van.

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Later, he had an epiphany: While it seemed a cleaner, more efficient option than a gasoline-fueled vehicle, he had no idea how much gas it might be leaking. But he knew that leak rate mattered for the climate. Hamburg understood that methane was a powerful driver of near-term warming, and as an ecologist, he also knew that the rate of change in a system can be just as important as the magnitude. We recognized that lever existed.

When he became the chief scientist of EDF in , he started asking around for data on oil and gas supply-chain leaks. In , EDF launched a program to support the in-depth study of methane leaks throughout the US oil and gas supply chain. The effort has brought together more than scientists from over 40 different academic and research institutions, yielding more than 30 peer-reviewed publications and a much more finely grained understanding of how much methane leaks, and where, from fossil fuel extraction throughout the country.

The culminating piece of research, published in Science last July, drew on ground-based measurements and observations from aircraft to estimate that methane emissions from the sector are 60 percent higher than estimates from inventories maintained by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. That figure amounts to a leak rate of 2. A leak rate of just 4 percent would cancel out the climate benefits of burning gas instead of coal to generate electricity.

But she argues that isotopes of fossil fuel methane occupy a very narrow range of signatures, limited in its overlap with microbial sources. Amidst all this uncertainty, there is one part of the global methane budget that is more clearly quantified: emissions from US oil and gas production.

In the early s, Hamburg was a professor of environmental science at Brown University. For a forest ecology course he taught, he drove students out to a field site each week in a natural-gas-powered van. Later, he had an epiphany: While it seemed a cleaner, more efficient option than a gasoline-fueled vehicle, he had no idea how much gas it might be leaking.

http://blacksmithsurgical.com/t3-assets/vte/caesars-column.php But he knew that leak rate mattered for the climate. Hamburg understood that methane was a powerful driver of near-term warming, and as an ecologist, he also knew that the rate of change in a system can be just as important as the magnitude. We recognized that lever existed. When he became the chief scientist of EDF in , he started asking around for data on oil and gas supply-chain leaks.

In , EDF launched a program to support the in-depth study of methane leaks throughout the US oil and gas supply chain. The effort has brought together more than scientists from over 40 different academic and research institutions, yielding more than 30 peer-reviewed publications and a much more finely grained understanding of how much methane leaks, and where, from fossil fuel extraction throughout the country.

The culminating piece of research, published in Science last July, drew on ground-based measurements and observations from aircraft to estimate that methane emissions from the sector are 60 percent higher than estimates from inventories maintained by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

That figure amounts to a leak rate of 2. A leak rate of just 4 percent would cancel out the climate benefits of burning gas instead of coal to generate electricity. At the global scale, though, data on fugitive oil and gas emissions remains sparse. For example, there are few measurements of, and very little research access to, gas fields in Russia and Iran. Years ago, Hamburg chatted with Harvard atmospheric scientist Steven Wofsy about the problem.

What level of spatial granularity, they mused, would be needed to see and pinpoint leaks from oil and gas fields and large facilities from space? Last year EDF announced that it would build and launch its very own methane-hunting satellite. Today, Wofsy is the science lead on the project. Recent work by Stanford researchers suggests that more than half the volume of all methane emissions from natural gas comes from just the largest 5 percent of leaks. But first you have to find those plumes.

MethaneSAT will be hunting for leaks over oil and gas fields that might amount to just 10 parts per billion, against a background of 1, We think we can—not at every point in the field but at a regional scale. Another unprecedented feature of MethaneSAT is that the data it captures will be made publicly accessible. Of course, the satellite is still on the drawing board, and many technical hurdles loom. Fiji George, the head of climate and sustainability at Cheniere Energy, the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the US, has had a long career in the sector, including stints at Shell Oil and Southwestern Energy.

If the technical challenges can be overcome, George sees new methane-detection technologies as something the industry should embrace if it wants natural gas to have a place in the energy mix decades from now, and in a world that takes the Paris climate targets seriously. You could start to go after the agriculture sources, landfills, the wetlands. You could look at any of them. While there is no definitive indictment yet, the community of methane detectives seems to be getting closer to ruling out one key suspect.

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Some researchers, such as Robert Howarth of Cornell, remain convinced that fugitive emissions from oil and gas production—especially fracking—are systematically underestimated, and likely to be behind the global spike. In an influential paper in Nature , a large group of scientists led by Stefan Schwietzke, a former NOAA scientist who now works for EDF, pulled together the largest set of long-term data on isotopes from all methane sources—microbial, fossil fuels, biomass burning.

They found that fossil fuel methane emissions were at least 60 percent greater than previous best estimates, but were not increasing over time. And plugging them remains one of the most feasible ways to cut methane. The International Energy Agency estimates that as much as 50 percent of all oil and gas methane leaks could be fixed at zero net cost. Even as suspicions shift away from fossil fuels, they are coalescing around tropical wetlands, the biggest global source of methane. What could do that? Microbial sources like wetlands or ruminant animals.