Steve Connor: The ultimate gas leak that scientists dreaded

Share
Related Topics

There are two significant facts about methane in terms of global warming. It is about 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and there are massive stores of it locked away under the permafrost of the northern hemisphere.

Methane is produced naturally by the decay of water-logged vegetation. Over thousands of years it has accumulated under the ground at northern latitudes and has effectively been taken out of circulation by the permafrost acting as an impermeable lid.

What makes methane so potentially dangerous is that its release from under the now-leaking permafrost could accelerate global warming, which in turn would speed the melting of the permafrost and release even more methane. Scientists believe this has happened in the geological past with devastating consequences for the global climate and life.

Like carbon dioxide, average methane concentrations in the atmosphere have risen significantly since the Industrial Revolution, increasing from about 700 parts per billion (ppb) in 1800 to about 1,790ppb today. Much of this increase is down to human activities, notably oil and gas exploration, and agriculture.

For the past 10 years, average global methane concentrations have levelled out, probably because of improvements in Russian gas exploration. However, for the first time in more than a decade, scientists recorded an increase in global methane in 2007 and are set to measure a further increase this year.

Scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have identified the Arctic as a potentially important new source of methane as temperatures in the region increase; it is one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth. "We're on the look-out for the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost. It's too soon to tell whether last year's spike in emissions includes the start of such a trend," said NOAA's methane expert Ed Dlugokencky last April.

The good news about methane is that it is quickly degraded in the environment, with an average lifetime of about 12 years, compared to the 100 years of carbon dioxide. The bad news is that we do not understand how the methane stores in the north will behave as the region experiences more extensive thaws. The fear is that the amounts released will make global warming far worse than expected.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This design and print company a...

Recruitment Genius: Lift and Elevator Contract Manager - London

£38000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Engineer - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Engineer is required to...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Hull - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum + £4200 car allowance: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Suppo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence