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Huge methane spike is contributing to climate change

Published Jul 15th, 2020 5:02PM EDT
climate change 2020
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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  • Researchers studying global methane levels from 2000 to 2017 have shown a dramatic spike in the amount of gas in our atmosphere.
  • Methane is less abundant than some other greenhouse gasses, but it holds more heat, making it particularly bad.
  • Global temperatures could spike by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

We already know that we’re not doing enough to curb climate change, but new data shows that things might be changing more rapidly than anyone predicted. A new report reveals that global levels of methane are higher than they’ve ever been, with the primary sources being the mining of coal and natural gas, as well as decay in landfills and the farming of cattle.

The research, which was published in Environmental Research Letters, focused on data on atmospheric methane levels between the years 2000 and 2017. 2017 is the most recent year for which global methane data is available, according to the researchers, but there’s no reason to believe things have gotten any better in the meantime.

The researchers say that the levels of methane are spiking so much that it could boost global temperatures as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That might sound like a tiny change, but it could bring with it monumental shifts in weather and dramatically affect our food supply as well as disrupt ecosystems on the land and in the oceans.

The big issue with methane is that while there’s not as much of it in the atmosphere — gasses like CO2 are far more abundant — it absorbs heat with greater ease. That makes it particularly bad for a planet that is consistently warming, and the more of it that is floating around, the higher Earth’s temperatures could climb.

So who’s to blame for the big spike in methane output? Based on the global data, the researchers have a pretty good idea:

Increased emissions from both the agriculture and waste sector and the fossil fuel sector are likely the dominant cause of this global increase, highlighting the need for stronger mitigation in both areas. Our analysis also highlights emission increases in agriculture, waste, and fossil fuel sectors from southern and southeastern Asia, including China, as well as increases in the fossil fuel sector in the United States. In contrast, Europe is the only continent in which methane emissions appear to be decreasing.

Good job, Europe! Unfortunately, your peers in the United States and Asia don’t seem to have the same priorities, and overall methane levels are continuing to spike as a result.

As the climate warms, we’re already seeing the results, and they’re not good. Reefs are dying off, storms continue to get stronger, and we can’t seem to wrap our heads around the fact that we’re affecting the planet in a dramatic way.