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'Vastly underestimated': Fossil fuels emit 40% more methane than previously thought, study finds
Methane is 80 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
- Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas on the planet.
- A recent study analyzed ice core samples from the pre-industrial era to measure the extent to which industry has played a role in increasing atmospheric methane levels.
- The researchers note that their results suggest action can be taken to stem methane pollution.
Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas. Colorless, odorless, and lighter than air, methane (CH4) is some 80 times more effective at trapping the atmosphere's heat than carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate it to be responsible for about 25 percent of current global warming. Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased by at least 150 percent.
Still, it's been hard to determine the primary emitters, and the extent to which natural processes are to blame.
Now, new research suggests that methane emissions from fossil fuels have been "vastly underestimated" by as much as 40 percent. The study focused on fossil methane, which is emitted through natural and anthropogenic sources like geologic seeps and the production of fossil fuels including natural gas. Biological methane is the gas's other form, and it comes from natural sources like wetlands, and human activity like rice farming.
The findings, published in Nature, are based on analyses of pre-industrial ice samples obtained from glaciers in Greenland. Because these ice core samples show how much methane was in the atmosphere before the Industrial Revolution, the analyses can offer a more accurate estimate of the extent to which human activity has been responsible for the recent increases of atmospheric methane.
Hmiel et al.
The results show that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, fossil methane emissions were about 1.6 to 5.4 teragrams. For context, the current estimate of total annual methane emissions is 172 to 195 teragrams. So, if the results are accurate, the implication is that human activity is almost entirely responsible for methane emissions, while natural contributors like gas seeps play a smaller role than previously thought. The results also suggest that the industry is likely underreporting the amount of methane leaks coming from various points in the supply chain, including processing, production, and transportation.
But that's not all bad news to lead study author Benjamin Hmiel, a researcher at the University of Rochester.
Fracking rig site in Oklahoma
J Pat Carter / Contributor
"I don't want to get too hopeless on this because my data does have a positive implication: Most of the methane emissions are anthropogenic (human-caused), so we have more control," Hmiel told USA Today. "If we can reduce our (methane) emissions, it's going to have more of an impact. [...] Placing stricter methane emission regulations on the fossil-fuel industry will have the potential to reduce future global warming to a larger extent than previously thought."
Methane emissions come from all sectors of the fossil fuel industry. But natural gas seems to be an especially dirty contributor, mainly because of the large amounts of gas that's lost during the production process. This leakage challenges the idea that natural gas is a relatively clean "bridge fuel" that society can burn as it develops more renewable energy sources. For example, a recent study found that the methane leakage rate in the U.S. natural gas supply chain was much higher than previous estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency. The implication: Natural gas comes with steep hidden costs.
Reducing methane emissions
The good news is that methane has a relatively short atmospheric lifespan. Unlike carbon dioxide, which can linger in the atmosphere for about 200 years, methane vanishes after about a decade. Its heat-trapping power, however, makes it a serious climate threat over the short term.
"It's impossible to hit [the Paris agreement climate] targets with methane in the mix," Lena Höglund Isaksson, a greenhouse gas expert at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, told National Geographic.
Although reducing methane leaks in the natural gas supply chain might be difficult, many experts argue that it's one of the more inexpensive and straightforward ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond tightening regulations regarding leak monitoring and equipment surveys, a 2018 study published in Science recommended several ways gas companies can reduce methane leaks:
- Install less failure-prone systems
- Conduct on-site leak surveys
- Re-engineer individual components and processes
- Deploy sensors at individual facilities and on towers, aircraft or satellites
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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A simple trick allowed marine biologists to prove a long-held suspicion.
- It's long been suspected that sharks navigate the oceans using Earth's magnetic field.
- Sharks are, however, difficult to experiment with.
- Using magnetism, marine biologists figured out a clever way to fool sharks into thinking they're somewhere that they're not.
For some time, scientists have suspected that sharks belong among the growing number of animals known to navigate using Earth's magnetic field. Testing anything with a shark, though, requires some care.
The key was selecting the right candidate. Keller and his colleagues chose the bonnethead shark, Sphyrna tiburo, a small critter that summers at Turkey Point Shoal off the coast of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory with which Keller is affiliated.
Bonnetheads elsewhere have been known to complete 620-mile roundtrip migrations. As the lab's Dean Grubbs puts it, "That's not bad for a shark that is only two to three feet long. The question is how do they find their way back to that same estuary year after year." There's a report of a great white shark migrating between two locations, one in South Africa and another in Australia, year after year.
The research is published in Current Biology.
Keller and his team rounded up 20 local juvenile bonnetheads and transported them into a holding tank at the marine lab. For the tests, the researchers simulated three real-world magnetic fields. As the various magnetic fields were activated, the sharks' movements were captured by GoPro cameras and their average swimming orientations calculated by software.
The first simulation, serving as a control, mimicked the magnetic field of the nearby shoal from which the sharks had been captured. When this field was activated, the sharks essentially acted like they were "home," just swimming around as they do.
A second field was the magnetic equivalent of a location 600 kilometers south of the lab within the Gulf of Mexico. When this field was activated, the sharks, apparently mistaking themselves for being far south in the Gulf, began swimming northward toward the shoal.
The opposite occurred with a field standing in for a location in continental North America 600 km north of their home shoal — the sharks began swimming southward.
"For 50 years," says Keller, "scientists have hypothesized that sharks use the magnetic field as a navigational aid. This theory has been so popular because sharks, skates, and rays have been shown to be very sensitive to magnetic fields. They have also been trained to react to unique geomagnetic signatures, so we know they are capable of detecting and reacting to variation in the magnetic field."
His team's experiments confirm what's long been suspected, Keller says: "Sharks use map-like information from the geomagnetic field as a navigational aid. This ability is useful for navigation and possibly maintaining population structure."
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.