Methane feedback loop beyond humans’ ability to control may have begun – NOAA

A methane feedback loop that is beyond humans’ ability to control may have begun, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have said.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere by human activities and natural processes. It is the second largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide.

According to NOAA, methane is 25 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Although it stays in the atmosphere much shorter than carbon dioxide, it has a huge impact on the rate of climate change.

Research published by NOAA now shows that 2021 has seen the largest annual increase in atmospheric methane levels since measurements began in 1983.

Xin Lan, a NOAA researcher, said Newsweek that after 2006, the majority of methane emissions produced were caused by natural wetlands and man-made emissions. Natural wetlands produce methane as organic matter decomposes, while human-made emissions are caused by livestock, garbage and landfills.

Abraham Lake, Alberta, Canada at sunset with frozen methane bubbles. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and scientists say a warming feedback loop may have already begun.
Getty Images

It is difficult for scientists to determine which emissions come from which source. However, the natural production of methane is accelerated by rainfall and temperature variations, which climate change is already causing.

Lan said that because Earth’s climate is already warming, methane produced from natural wetlands will only increase. This signals the start of a feedback loop, a continuous cycle that cannot be interrupted.

“From natural processes, we know that methane emissions from wetlands are sensitive to changes in precipitation and temperature,” she said. “Methane production from microbes increases with increasing global temperature that is driven by long-term greenhouse gas emissions. More atmospheric methane, in turn, can further warm the earth. C is the feedback loop we are referring to.”

In a statement, NOAA said this loop may be beyond human ability to control.

Lan said that in 2020 and 2021, the Earth was in a “La Nina” phase – a period when the surface of the ocean cools, subsequently leading to lower temperatures: “We generally see more precipitation on the terrestrial tropics, i.e. larger wetlands during the La Nina year We know that 2021 is the hottest La Nina year on record, so we are concerned about the possibility of a climatic return.

“Unfortunately, we may not be able to know for sure that this is a climate feedback due to limitations in current observational capacity on wetland methane emissions.”

However, Lan said if there is a climate feedback, it means the long-term warming of global temperatures has already contributed to more greenhouse gas emissions.

A file photo shows a power plant chimney. Lan said climate change has already caused fluctuating temperatures, which in turn leads to higher methane levels.
Frank Wagner/Getty Images

“It would be an additional challenge for us in tackling the impact of climate change,” Lan said. “Reducing fossil methane emissions is a simple approach to slowing down to reverse the rising trend of atmospheric methane. But given the longevity of CO2 in the atmosphere and much greater fossil CO2 emissions, we should also take immediate action to reduce fossil CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to understand and control natural methane emissions.”

Although it is difficult for scientists to differentiate between natural emissions, they estimate that around 30% of methane emissions are caused by the production of fossil fuels. These emissions tend to be easier to control with technology, NOAA said in a statement.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to reverse these trends, and it’s clearly not happening,” Ariel Stein, director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, said in a statement. “It is therefore crucial that we continue to maintain integrated and robust monitoring and verification systems to help assess the current state of the atmospheric load of greenhouse gases, as well as to determine the effectiveness of future measures. reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.


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