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Methane and Climate Change

Updated on September 19, 2014

Methane Is A Greenhouse Gas

Greenhouse gases are gases in earth's atmosphere that trap solar radiation and warm the atmosphere in the same way that a greenhouse increases the temperature within its bounds.

Carbon dioxide is probably the most well-known greenhouse gas and the burning of fossil fuels has led to an increase in carbon dioxide which is often blamed for human induced climate change. However, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas; 21 times more effective at trapping solar radiation than carbon dioxide.

Human activity is increasing the production of methane as well as carbon dioxide and is potentially a major problem for the global climate.

There are a number of sources of methane.

Here Are Some Of The Major Sources of Methane

1. Cattle and other livestock.

2. Termites.

3. Rice Paddies.

4. Landfills.

5. Melting Permafrost.

6. Oil Industry/Mining

Whilst some of these sources of methane may seem natural, after a little thought it is clear that humans have had a hand in the increase of methane by all these methods.

What is Methane? It Is A Gas Isn't It?

I guess that most of us know that methane is a gas but here is an extract from the Wikipedia entry for Methane to tell us a little more about it.

"Methane is a chemical compound with the molecular formula CH4. It is the simplest alkane, and the principal component of natural gas. Burning methane in the presence of oxygen produces carbon dioxide and water. The relative abundance of methane and its clean burning process makes it a very attractive fuel."

An Inconvenient Truth - An Easy Way To Learn Something About Climate Change

Before expanding on the sources of methane, anyone wanting to know more about "global warming" and climate change can do a lot worse than read or watch An Inconvenient Truth.

Remember, it isn't the final word on climate change, but it is an accessible book/movie to get some ideas of the issues involved.

An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It
An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It

Read an inconvenient Truth by Al Gore to get an insight into the problems the world faces because of climate change. Remember, climate change is a fact; human driven global warming is a theory. This book does a good job of explaining these facts and outlining the theory although it does tend to overstate the evidence and treat the theory as fact.

 
An Inconvenient Truth
An Inconvenient Truth

This movie is essentially a lecture by Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore on human driven climate change and global warming. The movie does a good job of bringing this issue to a large audience, but it should be remembered that it almost always quotes the worst possible of scenarios in order to expose the viewer to the most shocking ideas.

 
Cows create the greenhouse gas methane.
Cows create the greenhouse gas methane.

1. Cattle & Other Livestock As A Source of Methane.

The stomachs of cattle and other grazing livestock contain large numbers of bacteria which break down the cellulose in the plants they eat. These bacteria excrete methane which enters the atmosphere via the livestock's mouths and bottoms!

Whilst this is a natural process, the numbers of cattle, sheep and goats on earth now are man-made. As humans have cleared forest and created pasture the demand for meat has increased and with it the numbers of methane-belching livestock. Wild ruminants also produce methane but the numbers that would inhabit the natural environments destroyed by intensively cultivated pasture would be much lower.

In this rather strange way mankind has increased the production of methane - a very powerful greenhouse gas.

As undeveloped countries become more developed, the demand for meat increases. This means that unless humans begin to eat less meat the production of methane through livestock is likely to increase.

Measures such as changing cows' diet or breeding new varieties of cattle could reduce this problem.

Termites from Wikipedia
Termites from Wikipedia

2. Termites - A Methane Emitting Culture

Termites produce methane in the same way as livestock; the bacteria in their gut help them break down wood and they excrete methane. In fact they excrete a lot of methane, as much as five liters per minute for one termite mound. But how are humans responsible for this?

Well, in the same way that humans have artificially increased livestock numbers, so termite numbers have increased because of human activity. As forests are logged open country habitats replace them and often becomes more arid - ideal termite habitat has been created and so they thrive. At first the relationship between man and termites may seem tenuous, but this is a side effect of deforestation that rarely is discussed. Deforestation results in the release of carbon dioxide as stumps are burned, reduce sequestration of the same gas, extinction of populations of animals and plants, soil erosion, reduced rainfall and now we can add the increased production of methane from the resultant boom in termite populations to this list.

Read more about this issure here: Termites emit methane.

Rice production creates methane.
Rice production creates methane.

3. Rice Paddies

Habitats low in oxygen, such as marshy waters, have always been full of the methane-producing bacteria but the huge area under rice cultivation, which is often kept irrigated year round where naturally it would be dry for part of the year, produces huge amounts of methane and rice appears to speed up the process of venting it into the atmosphere.

As the world becomes more populated and demand for rice increases, the area under rice agriculture grows, year round rice production is introduced to more regions and the amount of methane produced in this way continues to increase.

Apparently, draining the paddies once during the growing season could reduce methane emissions by 30%.

Landfill Sites
Landfill Sites

4. Landfill Sites

In the region of 30% of all waste which ends up in landfills is capable of rotting. As it rots, methane is produced - that is what can sometimes be seen burning from small chimneys at old landfill sites.

In some places this methane is put to good use and pumped into houses for use as domestic gas. However, in most places around the world this does not happen; the methane gas simply seeps out into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect 21 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide.

Permafrost
Permafrost

5. Melting Permafrost & Warming Oceans

Permafrost is ground which is permanently frozen. However, as the climate warms, either naturally or as a result of man's actions, this permafrost begins to melt. Within this permafrost is locked an enormous amount of methane; this begins to be released into the atmosphere to further increase the greenhouse effect, increasing temperature, melting more permafrost, releasing more methane - a feedback loop which runs out of control.

In similar fashion, methane which is locked in the mud of the continental shelves of the oceans becomes free as the waters warm through climate change. This mud may hold trillions of tons of methane which if released would be catastrophic for the Earth's climate.

Iron warrior from Wikimedia Commons
Iron warrior from Wikimedia Commons

6. Oil Industry/Mining

The oil and mining industries release large amounts of underground methane when they penetrate into fossil fuel deposits. In some countries with large operations in these industries the amount of methane released is larger from other sources, but on a worldwide level this source of this greenhouse gas is lower than many other sources and certainly lower than all the biogenic sources put together.

These industries do create a large amount of methane but it is surprising that it is not the world's largest source. Although with the increase in "fracking" this source of methane is increasing and there are lots of other environmental problems surrounding this industry including including huge amounts of waste material, pollution, habitat destruction and others.

Learn More About The Issues Surrounding Climate Change

There are many publications available for those that want to know more about global warming and climate change. Here are just two of the more simple ones available.

Global Warning
Global Warning

A well-written book, by an authoritative author, detailing the issues surrounding global warming and its effects around the world.

 
Global Warming and Climate Change Demystified
Global Warming and Climate Change Demystified

All the facts surrounding climate change written in an informative but accessible style. Natural and human-driven issues are discussed as are alternatives to carbon-based energy sources.

 

Climate Change Scepticism - Form A Balanced Opinion On Climate Change

It is worth mentioning here that although a large number of scientists agree on the mechanisms of climate change and after many, many years they have succeeded in getting politicians to accept their views, there are still a number of respected scientists who disagree.

Although many of the arguments put forward against human-induced climate change can be relatively easily countered, it is always good to get both sides of the argument before forming an opinion.

Whilst the sceptics can often use inflammatory language to argue their point, equally environmentalists are prone to overstating their case. Reading some of the following in conjunction with books supporting the human-driven climate change theory may help to form a balanced opinion.

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming

Exploding myths about climate change and examining how best to tackle the problem over the long-term instead of reactionary and poorly thought-out measures.

 

What Do You Think Is The Biggest Threat? Vote Here

Which of these do you think is most influential in increasing methane levels in the atmosphere?

See results

Alternative Energy Link List - Make Your Own Green Power

Wind Turbines
Wind Turbines

Acknowledgements - The End Of Nature By Bill McKibben

The End of Nature
The End of Nature

The inspiration for this lens came after reading The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, from which some of the information originated. This is an informative book about the environment, although it is slightly pessimistic about the future which can become depressing to read.

 

© 2008 nickupton lm

Did You Learn Anything About Methane? Please Comment Here

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    • waihou profile image

      waihou 

      5 years ago

      I learned a lot from your lens. I like the information given by you.

    • nickupton lm profile imageAUTHOR

      nickupton lm 

      6 years ago

      @GetFactsnotHype: In fact cattle are the single largest source of methane in most countries. Having read about the methane emissions from the BP oil spill they would seem insignificant in terms of contributing to greenhouse gases, although devastating to the local ecology.

    • nickupton lm profile imageAUTHOR

      nickupton lm 

      6 years ago

      @GetFactsnotHype: Thank you.

    • GetFactsnotHype profile image

      GetFactsnotHype 

      6 years ago

      This is a good page, and although yes these things do emit methane there are bigger culprits like the BP oil spill, and hydrofracking in natural gas shale deposits.

    • GetFactsnotHype profile image

      GetFactsnotHype 

      6 years ago

      Added this page of yours on methane and climate change as a featured page on my page at http://www.squidoo.com/hydrofracking-and-updates

    • sherridan profile image

      sherridan 

      6 years ago

      Great lens - knew about the cows, but had never heard that termites contributed!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      6 years ago from Colorado

      Wow. I had no idea that termites and rice paddies increased methane emissions. I learned so much here. Thank you for a very informative and interesting article about methane production. *Blessed*

    • profile image

      Canimbill 

      7 years ago

      Great Lens, many people don't realize that there are other gases besides carbon dioxide that have a huge impact on climate change and global warming. Ozone is another and warming to causes more water to enter the atmosphere in the form of water vapor which causes further warming. I have been working on local adaptation to climate change and reporting it on my blog at OneMansCarbon.com.

    • nickupton lm profile imageAUTHOR

      nickupton lm 

      8 years ago

      @HarmoniousAvenger: I don't have a reference for this; but whilst the Great Plains (and Steppes) would have provided homes for great herds of grazing animals, they would have been feeding on unfertilized grass at natural levels. It is quite clear to see that as nations become more developed, the demand for meat rises and more meat is raised. Meat is generally produced using intensive or semi-intensive methods whereby animals are kept on land far in excess of natural densities through a combination of fertilized pasture and supplementary feed. In addition, grazing animals have been introduced to lands where they would not naturally occur and are raised in huge numbers. The number of sheep in New Zealand alone would almost certainly equate to most if not all the natural Pronghorn numbers on the untouched Great Plains. Over 1 million Water Buffalo in Thailand are kept as work animals, tilling soil that mostly would have been unoccupied by grazing animals - the natural population would have only been a fraction, and there are far more water buffalo in other Southeast Asian nations, all populations of which are many times greater than natural numbers would be.

      Whilst I am not sure if methane from livestock is a major contributor to climate change, it seems quite clear that under human intervention, the numbers of grazing animals in the world are far higher than they would be naturally.

    • profile image

      mitchdcba 

      8 years ago

      Probably we´ll have to wait for the changing climate to bring home the evidence bluntly. Environmental policies that are in place are being sidelined in the fight to return to growth.

      climate change

    • profile image

      HarmoniousAvenger 

      8 years ago

      Do you have a scientific reference for the livestock vs. wild animals? True, we have cleared a lot of land for livestock. But we have also fenced in quite a bit of land that was once grazing land. Think of the Great Plains -- once a gigantic grazing ground for bison and pronghorn.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      I didn't know that rice was bad for environment. I will eat egg noodles and not rice.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      9 years ago

      I was reading in "The Times" that huge numbers of cattle emit more greenhouse gases than cars and planes.

    • profile image

      CheekyMonkey 

      9 years ago

      Interesting lens. This is not something that people talk about very often.

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 

      10 years ago

      Listing this on my Environment lensography - Great lens.

    • chemrat profile image

      chemrat 

      10 years ago

      Nice lens. I like the way that you offer information about various opinions. We definitely want people to make informed decisions about the environment. I do get frustrated with the skeptics who are skeptical for purely political reasons, but all sides have zealots. I'll lens roll and favorite this!

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