By Huck Fairman
While January’s cold days seemed to stretch on and on, the Earth, as most of us know, is warming. In response, in the Princeton area, many residents, schools, and businesses have turned to electric vehicles and solar panels, partly, it is assumed, to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
But two relatively recent reports reveal that other factors, mostly beyond our immediate, local controls, are leading to increased emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, which may outstrip our efforts, so far, to reduce those emissions.
First, a report published in the journal Science revealed that satellite evidence has unveiled that “huge amounts of methane” are being vented into the air. Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas. And it is 25 times more effective than CO2 in trapping heat.
The amounts of methane were much greater than “official estimates” had foretold.
Researchers discovered “more than 1,800 large bursts of methane, often releasing several tons of methane per hour.” Consulting with gas companies, researchers were told that some of the releases came from accidents, but more often were intentional when gas companies needed to vent pipes for repairs or maintenance. Those releases could be avoided, but doing so would cost the gas companies money, which they have chosen not to spend.
A second report found that the melting of permafrost (that soil which remains frozen year-round) releases CO2 and methane.
And this releasing is increasing as our planet warms. The permafrost exists in the arctic regions of Russia, Alaska and Canada – or a quarter of the landmass in the northern hemisphere. And while the permafrost can extend a mile deep, surface temperatures in northern Russia since the Industrial Revolution have risen more than 2 degrees Celsius, or twice the global average.
Deforestation and wild fires have removed the top levels of vegetation which had served to maintain the frozen permafrost below. As a result, underground temperatures have risen more than expected. This has resulted in a “feedback loop,” where releasing greenhouse gases causes warmer temperatures which in turn melts the permafrost and releases yet more gases. And once this starts, there may be no way to stop the resulting cycle.
One scientist found that methane is being released 50% faster than it was a generation ago.
Another part of this is that while some permafrost is mostly frozen soil, other portions of it are ice, which can extend many stories underground. Because water is an efficient conductor of heat, it can transmit atmospheric heat to the underground, further melting surroundings and releasing greenhouse gases.
And once an area is mostly filled with water, it transmits its thawing temperatures rapidly, deeply and laterally. A decade ago these discoveries led to concern and hysteria around rapid, irreversible change. Now a majority of scientists see the coming change as a “slow motion disaster.”
It has been recognized that snow protects the ground it is covering from the coldest temperatures. (We have noticed this benefit when snow covers our roof and keeps the heat from escaping as quickly and the house warmer.) Therefore one solution has been to introduce animals to an area which in turn will reduce the snow coverage and allow the colder temperatures to reach the permafrost. But others see this as impractical. How many animals will be needed, and how will they survive or be fed?
What then can we as a nation, and planet, do? We could insure that the natural gas companies reduce, if not eliminate, their releases and spills of their methane. But the remaining need to deal with the melting permafrost seems impossibly complex and very possibly beyond our abilities.
What remains, of course, is eliminating emissions, from vehicles, buildings, construction, and even farm animals. It is to be hoped that the repercussions from global warming, the storms, draughts, floods, and wild fires will stir enough people to demand that the various actors do what is necessary to reduce emissions and the warming they are causing.