UCSB Professor Finds Methane To Be More Threatening to the Atmosphere Than Carbon Dioxide

Chemistry professor Galen Stucky co-authored a study published in the Science Magazine last week revealing that methane makes up a greater presence in the Earth’s atmosphere than the EPA, or Environmental Protection Agency, had previously thought.

The study focused on leaks in locations that allow methane to permeate the atmosphere — such as in natural gas factories — and the ways in which those factories could potentially close the leaks. According to a press release, closing the leaks will require investing money in innovative ideas.

Methane produces less carbon dioxide than coal when it is burnt, according to the release, but since it is a light gas, it tends to escape more easily into the atmosphere where it has a far more detrimental effect than carbon dioxide. Currently, carbon dioxide is still the most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere with methane coming in second and bearing a longer lifespan in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, making it difficult to eradicate.

According to professor of microbial geochemistry David Valentine, methane is even stronger than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming, and will therefore worsen global climate change.

“Methane’s primary effect on the atmosphere is its greenhouse warming potential,” Valentine said. “We often hear about carbon dioxide as a potent greenhouse gas, but methane is far more potent on a pound-per-pound basis, and large-scale emissions are likely to exacerbate global climate change.”

Valentine also said the leaks are not only detrimental to the environment, but to the consumer as well.

“There are also financial repercussions to methane leakage,” Valentine said. “Methane is the major component of natural gas, and ultimately, the consumer will eat the cost of a leaky infrastructure.”

According to Stucky, methane bubbles currently hidden in the Arctic ice are at risk of infiltrating the atmosphere as the ice melts. This, in addition to the methane leaks involved in fracking, pose significant threats to the environment.

The press release stated it is possible for natural gas companies to stop a majority of their leaks by adopting better and more innovative policies, however this will require significant financial investments.

According to the release, scientists are approaching the issue by two methods — the “top-down method” and the “bottom-up method.” The “top-down” process is able to cover large areas and identify the amount of emissions, while the “bottom-up” method shows the source of where the leaks are coming from. Both hope to measure and therefore assist in reducing the amount of methane in the atmosphere.


A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Thursday, February 20, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.