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Humans are releasing way more methane than we thought

Published Feb 20th, 2020 2:14AM EST
methane in atmosphere
Image: Reid Wiseman/NASA

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In our continued efforts to get human-caused climate change under control, carbon dioxide emissions are a big target for elimination, and for good reason. Carbon dioxide actively contributes to global warming, slowly causing our planet to heat up and causing all manner of terrible side effects along the way.

However, there’s another type of gas that is doing its own fair share of harm, and humans might be responsible for far more of it than we initially thought. It’s methane, and a new paper published in Nature suggests that mankind should focus on curbing methane emissions sooner rather than later.

Now, before you go imagining that humans are gassier than scientists thought, you should know that the kind of methane emissions we’re talking about here isn’t related to butts.

As it turns out, the big boost in methane emissions the researchers observed comes from a similar place as the carbon dioxide does. Fossil fuel burning produces a wealth of methane, releasing it into the atmosphere where it can be just as troublesome as carbon dioxide. In fact, based on the most recent data, the levels of methane in the atmosphere have increased by a whopping 150% over the past 300 years, and that’s a big, big change.

However, the good news is that methane leaves the atmosphere far more rapidly than carbon dioxide. Where it might take a century for carbon dioxide to break down in the atmosphere, methane can disappear in as little as nine years.

“If we stopped emitting all carbon dioxide today, high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would still persist for a long time,” Benjamin Hmiel, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Methane is important to study because if we make changes to our current methane emissions, it’s going to reflect more quickly.”

That’s great news, at least on the surface. But now we have to actually do something to curb our methane emissions from fossil fuels, which may be easier said than done.

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