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Energy»Methane's Key Role in Global Warming

»Wednesday, January 27,2010

Carbon dioxide is the gas we most associate with global warming, but methane gas also plays an important role. For reasons that are not well understood, methane gas stopped increasing in the atmosphere in the 1990s. But now it appears to be once again on the rise. Scientists are trying to understand why — and what to do about it.

Methane gas comes from all sorts of sources including wetlands, rice paddies, cow tummies, coal mines, garbage dumps and even termites. Drew Shindell, at NASA's Goddard Institute in New York, says, "It's gone up by 150 percent since the pre-industrial period. So that's an enormous increase. CO2, by contrast, has gone up by something like 30 percent."

Molecule for molecule, methane is much more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. And that's just part of the trouble.

"Methane is much more complicated once it gets into the atmosphere than something like carbon dioxide is," Shindell says, "and that's because it reacts with a lot of different important chemicals."

For example, methane in the atmosphere also creates ground-level ozone. And ozone isn't only bad for human health; it also contributes to global warming. Shindell recently totaled up all the effects of methane emissions and realized that the heating effect is more than 60 percent that of carbon dioxide's.

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