Rome: The First Polluters

While air pollution and the deterioration of the ozone layer has rapidly progressed over the past century, the process of man destroying the Earth began over 2,000 years ago. In what could be called the beginning of the end, the Romans and the Han Dynasty in China became the first known polluters. The main ingredient in this recipe for disaster is of course, methane. 

Scientists were able to discover this by testing samples of gas bubbles trapped in ice that has taken thousands of years to accumulate. A team of 15 scientists from Europe and the U.S. traveled to Greenland to collect the samples. Their goal originally was to determine how warm spells affect the amount of methane in the atmosphere. Methane is a naturally occurring gas so it is important to determine how much is being produced due to human involvement versus nature.

What they found was an increase of methane in the atmosphere, but in periods other than warm spells. That could only mean it was spurred by human activity. The Romans contributed to this increase by their domesticated livestock excreting methane through digestion, as well as the process of burning wood to make their weapons. The Han dynasty on the other hand, produced large amount of rice fields that attracted methane producing bacteria.

From a period of about 1,700 years between 100 B.C. to 1600 A.D., methane was produced at an increase of about 31 million tons per year. Those numbers are astounding and scientists will have to rethink how much damage we have done in recent centuries versus the overall impact humans have had. While it is clear that the environmental impact humans have had has only increased, the scope and magnitude is now much larger. We might now be the biggest contributors to global pollution and methane production, but we certainly were not the first.

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