Methane: Take one: Daddy farted and the house blew up

Methane is the friend of immature humorists everywhere. It’s also the friend of mature humorists on occasion, when a really good fart joke comes along. It’s been our constant companion back into the dim, dim past, and it is a product of daily life. It is also a really big problem lurking under the surface of this whole global warming thing, and it adds a massive degree of randomness to the next decade or so.

Aside from its flammability and familiar stench, methane is a greenhouse gas. It doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere for as long as CO2 does, but it is about 25 times as powerful a greenhouse gas, which means for every ton of methane released into the atmosphere, we get twenty tons worth of CO2-equivalent warming. (video below the fold)

“But!” I hear you cry, “but where does it come from? Why is everyone complaining about CO2 if methane is so bad?” Actually I’m willing to bet most of you know this but it amuses me to go through it anyway, so bear with me. Methane generally comes from digesting organic matter. Rotting leaves, for example, or decomposing feces. Methane is, as has been mentioned, a key ingredient in flatulence for animals of all shapes and sizes, and it is also produced where ever vegetation is rotting. The rotting vegetation bit is where we’re going today.

Right now, the production of methane, even from our massive, flatulent herds of cattle, is fairly low, at least compared to the amount of CO2 our species is producing. It’s not a problem, really, and if it were just that, Methane’s effectiveness as a greenhouse gas would be a curiosity, and not really worth the attentions of a climate extremist.

It would be nice, if it were just that, but it’s not. See, there’s this place called the Arctic Circle, way up Nawth, and it’s had a tendency, for the past few millenia, to be really cold. So cold, in fact, that rather than decomposing, the little vegetable matter that is able to grow there during the short, sun-blasted summers, doesn’t even decompose much. It is pushed down by new vegetation on top of it, and by repeated snowfall, and it compacts and freezes into the Permafrost – a layer of frozen ground that never thaws.

That’s the theory, anyway, but now that the global climate is warming, the permafrost is thawing; it is also decomposing. Thousands and thousands and thousands of years of organic matter are decomposing at an ever increasing rate, and producing ever increasing amounts of methane, which are forming a nice thick blanket over the arctic, and trapping more heat, which is melting more permafrost which is decomposing and producing more methane, etc.

What this means is that you can go to Siberia, or northern Canada, find a nice, snow-covered lake, knock a hole in a bubble, and light the lake on fire. Think I’m exaggerating? You probably don’t, but here’s a video anyway, along with a talented and enthusiastic narration.

What’s to be done? Well, nothing, really. If we were able to burn all of the methane, it would oxidize into CO2, and be less potent, but there’s no way we could get even a fraction of it. The idea scenario would be for us to have stopped our massive CO2 production twenty or thirty years ago when we were first warned, but at this point, our best bet is to try to do that now, and hope that we can reduce atmospheric CO2 to the point that it’ll offset the methane warming, at least a little.

As it is, that chain reaction has started, and all that remains now is to see how bad it will be.

This concludes methane: take one. The next methane post will be about clathrates. That may come a little while later though.


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