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Global Methane Surge Threatens Efforts to Curb Climate Change

Dec 13, 2016 05:50 AM EST
Rice paddies
Agriculture, particularly rice paddies and cattle, are significant contributors in methane emissions. (Photo by Chumsak Kanoknan/ Getty Images)
(Photo : Chumsak Kanoknan / Stringer)

Are our climate change efforts changing anything? The rising concentration of methane in the atmosphere, now increasing at a faster rate than any period in the last 20 years, is becoming a great threat to the environment -- and a much more difficult problem to solve.

According to a report from, methane might be less prevalent than other greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, but it is much more potent. In fact, it actually traps 28 times more heat, so it is alarming that although carbon dioxide emissions is being managed, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has actually been spiking.

In an editorial published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, a group of international scientists revealed that methane in the air began increasing in 2007 and soared in 2014 and 2015. During these two years, the methane concentrations in the atmosphere rose by 10 or more parts per billion annually. To compare, the methane concentrations increased by just around 0.5 parts per billion in the early 2000s.

Co-author of the research paper and Stanford University professor in Earth System Science Robert Jackson explained how difficult it is to track methane as it can come from a slew of different sources. Methane can come from natural sources such as marshes and other wetlands, but a bulk - roughly 60 percent - stem from human activities like farming cattle and rice paddies. Fossil fuel operations also contribute about a third of methane emissions every year.

"Unlike carbon dioxide, where we have well-described power plants, almost everything in the global methane budget is diffuse," Jackson said. "From cows to wetlands to rice paddies, the methane cycle is harder."

In a report from BBC, Jackson added, "Methane has many sources, but the culprit behind the steep rise is probably agriculture. We do see some increased fossil fuel emissions over the last decade, but we think biological sources, and tropical sources, are the most likely."

However, Jackson sees it as an opportunity to affect positive change for the environment.

"When it comes to methane, there has been a lot of focus on the fossil fuel industry, but we need to look just as hard if not harder at agriculture," Jackson explained. "The situation certainly isn't hopeless. It's a real opportunity."

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