The Arctic and Methane

The question of the potential for methane emission from melting Arctic ice has been asked many times, but the exact danger posed is often only speculated at. As it turns out, recent evidence has pointed to a potentially catastrophic release of methane in the near future, and this theory has been backed up with sufficient evidence.

As some of us know, the melting of sea ice inevitably leads to more melting, and this chain effect is currently underway in the Arctic, where tons of sea ice is melting every year. Scientists have previously theorized that there was a danger of methane trapped in frozen arctic soil being released alongside CO2 from the ice, and these fears have recently been confirmed. As Donatella Zona states, “Arctic soil layers are structured kind of like a sandwich in the winter.” There’s a top layer (the very surface of the soil) and a bottom layer that both freeze as temperatures drop. In between them, there’s a layer of soil — found just below the surface — that can remain unfrozen for months, even as the temperature drops. Because of this unfrozen soil, methane is released even in winter months, leading to the conclusion that not only does the danger of methane emissions in the Arctic exist, but the situation is worse than was theorized.

Several scientists have theorized that there lies the potential for a massive 60 Gigatonne methane release “at any time”. The Arctic methane problem has been compared to a ticking time bomb, and the threat of such an emission brings home the reality of global warming’s early dangers leading to potentially cataclysmic dangers.

More attention must be brought to methane in the Arctic, as from recent evidence it could at one point come to overshadow other man-made emission problems. The most frightening fact about this danger is that it may already be too late to prevent its effects.

Maintenance, Malpractice, and Methane

Although practices to curb methane emissions are commonly mentioned as the most effective method of reducing the gas’ greenhouse effects, there is much to say about caution when it comes to working around underground sources. Ignorance and lack of maintenance are just as responsible for man-made methane problems as over-mining and poor control.

Roger Douin states that over “forty separate types of equipment” and their malfunctions are responsible for leaks in the fracking process, and that their innate flaws and wear over time poses a significant problem. Although the EPA has pledged to seek out these problems and create strict regulations, these problems are still inherent in the fracking process.

The most important (or least, considering the ultimate price to be paid) reason for lack of proper regulation of this equipment and strict enforcement of its design and maintenance is the cost in regard to these proceedings. One could simply this summarize this as human greed trumping over looking towards the future. There is less incentive for the industry — particularly smaller, cash-constrained companies — to make fixes that require more personnel, time, and money, yielding a lower return-on-investment.  A device that could help prevent leaks, called a “vapor recovery unit”, carries a price tag of of $100,000, making this a poor prospect for one seeking maximum profit. These units can capture up to 95% of vapors that are vented from tanks, which makes them a necessity for eco-friendly fracking and storage, expensive as they may be.

In conclusion, the importance of safe practices must be emphasized in the hopes of curbing these “accidental” emissions and promote an ecologically sound method that does not pose a threat to our way of life in the future. As far as methane emissions go, these are at the forefront of those that can be prevented, and with a viable solution to boot.

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A Fine Line: The Delicate Balance of Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas

We have a tendency to think of methane and greenhouse gases as inherently bad, but this is not exactly the case. After all, without any greenhouse gas in our atmosphere we’d still be in an ice age, so what exactly is all the hype about?  Well, it’s true that greenhouse gas in our atmosphere is what makes life on earth possible, but too much of it on the other hand and the land masses will flood. This is why we need to be extremely careful about what we put into our atmosphere.

First of all, where did all this gas come from? Well, ever since the industrial revolution humans have been pouring methane into the atmosphere and increasing the ratio exponentially. All of this gas comes primarily from ruminant livestock, rice cultivation, landfills, and fossil fuel extraction. Check out this graph below which illustrates the sharp increase of methane in the atmosphere around the early 1900s.

So what are normal amounts of atmospheric methane? According to the chart above, we should be shooting for about 630 parts per billion, about 1/3 of the current levels! 

To make matters worse, the growing population coupled with the demand for these polluting commodities has exacerbated the issue. Here is a graph of the world population with an alarmingly similar exponential curve.

Thankfully, the news is not all doom and gloom. According to this chart compiled by Google using data from the World Bank, the rate of population expansion has been declining since the 1960s.

If you are not feeling the excitement yet, you should be! The World Bank also estimates that by the year 2015, the population growth rate will be down to below 0.5%. What this means is that our requirement for these resources (beef, natural gas, etc.) will be in less demand. Couple this with an intentional cultural shift to eat less beef, use less fossil fuel, and send less waste to landfills, we may very well be able to put a cap on this global methane concern.

There is however one critical component to stabilizing and eventually decreasing the greenhouse gas content in our atmosphere, and that is you. It will take effort on the part of every individual to decrease our meat consumption (in particular ruminant animals), be ever mindful of waste production, and take heed in the sources of our energy. With just a bit of conscious effort, we can preserve the atmosphere for future generations to enjoy as we have. To learn more about what you can do, visit Also be sure to check out the other posts on this blog for more specific solution ideas. For an in depth analysis of the meat consumption situation and methane pollution, I recommend the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.

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For additional great methane related information check out this site:

For some writing from a fellow blogger read this one; it's intriguing and relevant:

The World Bank offers in depth studies and learning tools for those ready to take the next step:

Solving the Problem With Pigs

In view of livestock being one of the largest producers of methane pollution, a pair of Australian farmers have established an innovative way to reduce their footprint, as well as turn a profit.

Based in New South Wales, the couple decided to enclose the main effluent dam of their pig pen, thus capturing the methane that was being produced. The methane is then converted to energy which powers their farm. The remainder is returned to the grid, and has the ability to power 450 houses. Now, instead of facing the large power bill associated with farming, they now enjoy a $5000 power profit each month, and the distinction of having the pig farm with the lowest carbon footprint in Australia.

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Food Wastage

"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread." -- Mahatma Gandhi 

While there is no doubt that wasting food is taking it away from people who do not have it, the problem doesn't end there. The food wasted goes to dumps and then to landfills.

Landfill gas emissions are one of the largest anthropogenic sources of methane especially because of food waste. To prevent these emissions from growing with world population, future Food Wasted best management practices need to be evaluated. 

Some facts and figures

Approximately, 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste according to Food and Agriculture Organization.
  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year -- approximately 1.3 billion tons -- gets lost or wasted. 
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tons) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).
  • Over 97% of food waste generated ends up in the landfill (Environmental Protection Agency) which means about 33 million tons of food makes its way to landfills each year (Environmental Protection Agency). 
The objective of a research paper conducted by Wang, Yu-Sheng, et al was to predict FW production for 2025 if present management practices are maintained, and then, to compare the impact of scenario 1: encouraging people to stay in rural areas and compost 75% of their FW, and; of scenario 2, where in addition to scenario 1, composting or anaerobically digesting 75% of urban FW (UFW).

A relationship was established between per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and the population percentage living in urban areas (%UP), as well as production of municipal solid waste (MSW) and UFW. With estimated GDP and population growth per country, %UP and production of MSW and UFW could be predicted for 2025. A relatively accurate (R 2 > 0.85) correlation was found between GDP and %UP, and between GDP and mass of MSW and FW produced. On a global scale, MSW and UFW productions were predicted to increase by 51 and 44%, respectively, from 2005 to 2025. During the same period, and because of its expected economic development, Asia was predicted to experience the largest increase in UFW production, of 278 to 416 Gkg. If present MSW management trends are maintained, landfilled UFW was predicted to increase world CH4 emissions from 34 to 48 Gkg and the landfill share of global anthropogenic emissions from 8 to 10%.

In comparison with maintaining present FW management practices, scenario 1 can lower UFW production by 30% and maintain the landfill share of the global anthropogenic emissions at 8%. With scenario 2, the landfill share of global anthropogenic emissions could be further reduced from 8 to 6% and leachate production could be reduced by 40%.

A cohesive action is needed against wasting food. The EPA suggests: "If you can't reduce wasted food, divert it from landfills."

  • Nutritious, safe, and untouched food can be donated to food banks to help those in need.
  • Compost food scraps rather than throwing them away. 

Wang, Yu-Sheng, et al. "Methane potential of food waste and anaerobic toxicity of leachate produced during food waste decomposition." Waste management & research 15.2 (1997): 149-167.

Food and Agriculture Organization
Environmental Protection Agency

Is my water supposed to be on fire?

In recent years, people have occasionally called attention to methane in their tap water. Since methane is flammable, one of the most common and eye-catching ways people test for it is to simply hold an open flame by the water and see if it ignites.

(Disclaimer: Fire is a risky element to toy with and we strongly urge the reader not to try this at home)
Of course, seeing water on fire is shocking to many people, so it makes the situation understandably alarming; but how does it get in the water in the first place?  And how dangerous is it to people who drink it?

There appears to be a correlation with nearby fracking. For those who don't know, fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is a process in which people drill into rock and then forcefully inject water, sand and other chemicals in order to force out trapped natural gas and petroleum. The process is already controversial due to environmental concerns about emissions, large amounts of water used, unwanted chemicals, and other risks.   People setting tap water on fire, then, has definitely called attention to the issue of chemicals escaping into the nearby drinking supply. However, the issue is not necessarily always due to the fracking chemicals, as some fear. The drilling itself can open unexpected cracks for methane to seep through the ground to the surface, a process known as methane migration. This issue seems to happen occasionally even without drilling activity.

So what risks does this pose directly to people? Thus far, studies haven't shown a direct health risk from small doses of methane. In very high concentrations in the air, the methane can displace oxygen and lead to asphyxiation. Some calculations suggest that at the concentrations shown, compared with average daily drinking water consumption, the concentrations of methane in the air due to tap water contamination is negligible.

The quantities in the air may not pose an immediate risk, but there should definitely be more research into long-term effects of methane consumption on health.  I doubt anybody really likes the idea of drinking a combustible chemical with their water.  Whether or not one supports or denounces fracking, we should also investigate safety standards to ensure undesirable chemicals aren't seeping into places we don't want them.

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Methane Revealed: Infrared Videos Show Pollution Across America

On the tail of what has been confirmed to be the worst methane leak in California's history, Earthworks has released a map over over 180 videos showing oil and gas methane leaks across the US.  Using infrared technology, the videos reveal problem locations like gas wells and pipelines spewing air pollution.

By exposing the link between oil and gas facilities and the unhealthy environments they create, Earthworks hopes for new rules in state and federal regulations to be enacted for these sites. “Infrared videos allow us to see the magnitude of EPA’s draft Greenhouse Gas Inventory revision in black and white. Oil and gas methane pollution is more severe than previously thought, and more widespread,” said Lauren Pagel, Earthworks’ policy director. “We need EPA to step up and set standards for oil and gas climate pollution from all facilities. But frankly the best way to eliminate this pollution is to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground.”

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Dairy Dare for Your Derriere

Want to do something good for yourself and for the environment? Take the Dairy Dare for Your Derriere Challenge! By participating in this challenge you can help to reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere and lessen its effects on climate change by consuming fewer dairy products and decreasing the demand for their production. Foods like milk, ice cream and cheese are high in fat and cutting your weekly consumption of them down can improve your diet and help reduce the greenhouse gas emitted from agricultural production.

Here’s how to take the Dairy Dare challenge: first, spend a week recording how many servings of dairy you consume, then decide what percentage you want to dare yourself to cut out of your diet for the next week. Set your own goal. Maybe it’s 20% less than the week before, or a day with only half as many servings. Dare yourself to consume a little less dairy and feel good that you’re also helping the environment. Good luck!

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Cow and Pig Emissions

Cow manure and belching pigs could be having a greater effect on climate change than scientists previously thought, and it took a special methane-sniffing satellite to figure it out. 

The new findings based on satellite data from 2004 provide the clearest picture yet of methane emissions over the entire U.S. They show human activities released more of the gas into the atmosphere than previously thought and the sources of these emissions could be much different than government estimates.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in 2004, 28.3 megaton's (31 million tons) of methane were released into the atmosphere by human activities in the United States. The EPA estimates that 8.8 megatons (9.7 million tons) of methane came from livestock while 9.0 megatons (9.9 million tons) came from the oil and gas industries.

These EPA estimates are based on a “bottom-up” approach. The EPA collects data about greenhouse gases through national energy data, information on agricultural activities, and a data reporting program that requires industries to submit their annual emissions of methane and other gases. The EPA estimates the amount of methane in the atmosphere from this data, which includes information about the amount of methane each cow would produce or how much natural gas is sold, said Wecht.
The satellite tool used in the new study directly measured the amount of gas released into the atmosphere, which is more accurate than estimating methane emissions using the “bottom-up” approach, according to the paper.

Satellite observations of atmospheric methane provide a resource for constraining emissions, as first demonstrated by Bergamaschi et al. [2007]. Satellites deliver dense spatial coverage unachievable by surface networks or aircraft campaigns, albeit with lower precision. Methane has been retrieved from nadir satellite measurements of solar backscatter in the short-wave infrared (SWIR) and terrestrial radiation in the thermal infrared (TIR). SWIR retrievals are available from Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY) for 2003–2012 [Frankenberg et al., 2011] and Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) for 2009 to present [Parker et al., 2011; Schepers et al., 2012]. TIR retrievals are available from Atmospheric Infrared Sounder for 2002 to present [Xiong et al., 2008], Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer for 2004–2011 [Worden et al., 2012], and Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer for 2007 to present [Xiong et al., 2013; Crevoisier et al., 2013]. SWIR retrievals provide total atmospheric columns. TIR retrievals provide vertical profiles but with low sensitivity to the lower troposphere due to lack of thermal contrast, and this limits their value for detecting regional sources [Wecht et al., 2012]. SCIAMACHY had full global coverage with a 6 day return time. Current coverage by GOSAT is much sparser. Instrument degradation limited the value of the SCIAMACHY data after 2005 [Frankenberg et al., 2011]. The Topospheric Monitoring Instrument to be launched in 2015 will provide SWIR methane data with global daily coverage and 7 × 7 km2 nadir resolution [Veefkind et al., 2012].

Not all scientists agree that methane emissions from livestock are easily measured or should be curtailed as a way to combat climate change. Agricultural methane emissions are difficult to measure and highly uncertain because livestock operations are so widespread and their emissions are often intermittent, said Raymond Pierrehumbert, a geophysical sciences professor at the University of Chicago. Cutting methane emissions regardless of their source is pointless, Pierrehumbert said.

“As for methane control strategy, the short lifetime of methane in the atmosphere means that the harm it does to the climate is reversible, so we can defer action until later after we’ve gotten CO2 under control,” he said. “CO2 action can’t be deferred without causing irreversible harm.”

However, Wecht said that methane emissions have accounted for roughly half the warming as CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution, and slashing methane emissions now could buy humanity time to figure out how to more effectively cut CO2 emissions.

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  1. Arlene M. Fiore, Vaishali Naik, Eric M. Leibensperger, Air Quality and Climate Connections, Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 2015, 65, 6, 645CrossRef
  2. Alexander N. Hristov, Joonpyo Oh, Fabio Giallongo, Tyler W. Frederick, Michael T. Harper, Holley L. Weeks, Antonio F. Branco, Peter J. Moate, Matthew H. Deighton, S. Richard O. Williams, Maik Kindermann, Stephane Duval, An inhibitor persistently decreased enteric methane emission from dairy cows with no negative effect on milk production, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015, 112, 34, 10663CrossRef
  3. Julie Wolf, Tristram O. West, Yannick Le Page, G. Page Kyle, Xuesong Zhang, G. James Collatz, Marc L. Imhoff, Biogenic carbon fluxes from global agricultural production and consumption, Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 2015, 29, 10, 1617Wiley Online Library
  4. David R. Lyon, Daniel Zavala-Araiza, Ramón A. Alvarez, Robert Harriss, Virginia Palacios, Xin Lan, Robert Talbot, Tegan Lavoie, Paul Shepson, Tara I. Yacovitch, Scott C. Herndon, Anthony J. Marchese, Daniel Zimmerle, Allen L. Robinson, Steven P. Hamburg, Constructing a Spatially Resolved Methane Emission Inventory for the Barnett Shale Region, Environmental Science & Technology, 2015, 49, 13, 8147CrossRef
  5. Rebekka Fine, Matthieu B. Miller, Emma L. Yates, Laura T. Iraci, Mae Sexauer Gustin, Investigating the influence of long-range transport on surface O3 in Nevada, USA, using observations from multiple measurement platforms, Science of The Total Environment, 2015, 530-531, 493

Methane Moon

Keeping methane gas out of the atmosphere is on a lot of people’s minds these days, but would a planet with a methane atmosphere look like? Thanks to the Voyager, Cassini and Huygens spacecrafts, we don’t have to wonder. Titan, one of the many moons of the gas giant planet Saturn, not only has methane in its atmosphere and clouds in its gas form but also in its liquid form as rain and lakes.

Titan doesn’t sound so bad, right? It might even support life! However, it’s a frigid -290 °F and life would look pretty different there than it does here on Earth. As organisms that evolved here humans are uniquely suited to the Earth’s specific chemistry and a big change in that chemistry, such as global temperatures warming from methane and other man-made atmospheric pollution, would make the conditions for life on Earth very different from what we are used to. We can't change the in such big ways if we want to keep living on it. 

Small Ponds, Big Emissions, Big Dams, Small Steps

Finding solutions to the growing concern about methane emissions produced by human activities is important, but the natural sources of methane should not be ignored. According to and the EPA, between 36-40 percent of methane emissions come from natural sources such as wetlands, termites and bodies of water.

Early studies at Yale University on carbon (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions of small ponds and lakes indicate that a higher proportion of emissions come from small ponds and estuaries compared to larger bodies of water. Citing Meredith Holgerson and Peter Raymond's study through the Yale School of Forestry and Environment Studies (2016), Jim Shelton with Yale News notes that ponds less than a quarter acre make up 8 percent of the total surface area of global lakes and ponds but account for 15 percent of carbon emissions as well as 40 percent of methane emissions. The shallower depths and higher perimeter-to-surface-area ratio lead to more carbon and methane reaching the surface from gas produced by sediment on the pond floor. Simply put, the decomposing leaf litter and trees that accumulate on pond floors produce methane and the small size of ponds means more of the methane is released into the atmosphere. Holgerson and Raymond are pioneers in this area but still recognize that further research is need given the difficulty of tracking these smaller bodies of water globally. Nonetheless, it presents an opportunities to explore strategies to reduce emissions in these smaller ponds as a part of the overall methane emissions reduction effort.

Recapturing some of the methane to be used as electricity is being explored as possible solution to the emissions problem from hydroelectric dams. When a dam is built this submerges a significant amount of leaf litter and vegetable matter that decomposes and produces methane similar to that in small ponds but on a larger scale. According to an article by John Platt on Mother Nature Network (2012) power plant engineers are working toward solutions to recapture the methane to be use as natural gas to produce electricity. The potential solutions from these findings are a small step in the right direction and are also promising for the reduction of emissions produced in small ponds as the technology could become more refined and scaled. 

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Works Cited:

DIY Culture to Offer Solutions

By this point in the blog we have seen substantial information relating to the chemistry, causes, effects, and solutions of methane. It can often times seem daunting and overwhelming when we begin to realize the true scope of the problem. However, taking small steps can be a good start. We can of course make a large impact just by changing our diet, but what about the energy shortage and methane leaks from natural gas wells? Let’s examine some potential solutions to that now.

With any type of problem solving, usually the most effective method is to get right to the source of the problem. In the case of methane, one main source is the decomposing waste we produce. The EPA Landfill Methane Outreach program is certainly admirable, but what about solutions that can be implemented now? A useful solution would be one where we could harvest that methane before our waste ever reaches the landfill. Thankfully, some members of the DIY community have provided us with what could be a viable solution.

There are already a number of folks attempting such projects. What they’ve done is taken debris that would normally be discarded, and created fermentation chambers to collect the methane for its energy. The methane captured from these systems can be used to power a hot water heater, a stove, hot tub, or even power a furnace to heat your home. Methane gas can be used in place of natural gas in most situations. Perhaps the most notable benefit of capturing methane right at home is that we could reduce the reliance on natural gas wells, thus reducing the likelihood of leaks such as happened in Aliso canyon (read more about that here). Yet another benefit is that we would not have to ship trash all around the country just so it can decompose and release methane into the atmosphere while sitting in a landfill.

Aside from these home methane capturing methods, there are also efforts to capture unused methane on a bit larger scale from sewage waste. Take for example a prison project successfully implemented in Rwanda. Basically, they created large beehive shaped sewage holding tanks, and with the right kind of bacteria, were able to produce biogas for cooking and the like (read more about this here). This type of project can be beneficial on multiple levels. For one, it can solve the ever lingering issue of sanitation, and for another it can reduce the amount of firewood needed for cooking. Both these solutions are of real value, especially in areas such as Rwanda where there is limited firewood resources and, in some parts, limited sanitation infrastructure. So as we can see, larger scale methane production can be viable.

Maintaining the delicate balance of greenhouse gas in our atmosphere is a real challenge, but the solution, at least with respect to methane, lies in the mindful collection and utilization of that gas. Collecting unused gas can also help to eliminate the necessity for natural gas wells, at the same time eliminating the risk of leakage such as in the case of Aliso Canyon. With some thoughtful grass roots movements and experimentation, our creative species will most certainly be able to able to find a solution to the methane conundrum. Be sure to check out my sources below to see what some other innovators have already been working on!

Learn more at

Learn more about home biogas fermenters here

and here.

Here is some general information about biogas, including the project in Rwanda.

Source of the above photo:

Less Meat For Climate Change

Reading about methane emissions and climate change might feel a little overwhelming, especially when you begin to wonder what you could possibly do to help with the problem! You’ll be happy to know there are actually many different ways that you as a consumer can help reduce methane (and other greenhouse gas) emissions. One of the most significant ways, starts right in your own kitchen. Reducing yours and your family’s meat consumption can go a long way to limiting the harmful methane emissions that come from the livestock industry.  

According to Science Magazine, 25% of all methane emissions come from the livestock industry [1], a number that will only grow in the coming years. Currently, there are 50% more cows (and similar animals) than a half a century ago and the methane released by their digestive systems is “the biggest human-related source of methane gas” [2].  Further, at the rate that meat consumption is growing now the livestock industry is on track to rise 75% by 2050, with dairy also rising by 65% [3].

In the industrialized world, people typically consume 90 kilograms of meat a year, which equals about 230 grams a day. This is the equivalent of a side of beef, 50 chickens, and one whole pig. However in developing nations meat consumption is much less, closer to just 30 kilograms a year. If we were able to cut our meat consumption from 230 grams a day to just 90, it would have a significant impact on methane emissions, ultimately slowing the rate of global climate change [4].

So what does this change look like? Well, 230 grams of meat is a little more than a half of a pound, which is a lot of meat to be eating per day! If we reduce meat consumption to just 90 grams a day, that would be closer to a quarter of a pound of meat. This is an easy change to make by just eating meat in one meal a day. Have a chicken breast or burger patty with dinner, but cut out the sausage for breakfast. 

To make sure your not eating to much meat in one sitting, just picture a deck of cards, a piece of meat the size of a deck of cards is approximately 1/4lb.

With all of the alternative protein sources out there, people don’t need meat in every single meal. Reducing your meat consumption to just ¼ lb. a day would have a huge impact on the environment, not to mention your health!