Methane Has Never Risen This Fast in the Atmosphere

Methane Has Never Risen This Fast in the Atmosphere

Saeid US

By Saeid US


There’s more methane in the atmosphere than any other time since record-keeping began—and levels really spiked last year, even though we were all inside for most of the time.

On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency said that global atmospheric methane rose to 1,892.3 parts per billion.

Methane levels shot up 14.7 ppb in 2020—compared to 8.5 ppb and 10.7 ppb in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as its partner in planet-warming crime, carbon dioxide.

But while it stays in the atmosphere for less time, it packs a much bigger heating punch: Methane is roughly 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

An estimated 60% of methane released into the atmosphere is directly tied to human activities like flaring from oil and gas or animal agriculture.

Permafrost thawing, for example, is, technically, a natural process that releases methane into the atmosphere.

First, a tiny bit of good news: Some preliminary atmospheric samples, NOAA said, suggest that the spike is from natural sources like ecosystems. But scientists say the increase could be because those natural sources of methane, like swamps and bogs, are getting warmer and emitting more as a result. Another idea: our atmosphere could be losing its ability to break down methane, like an old air conditioner that’s on its last legs.

“Although increased fossil emissions may not be fully responsible for the recent growth in methane levels,” NOAA research chemist Ed Dlugokencky said in the agency’s Wednesday announcement, “reducing fossil methane emissions is an important step toward mitigating climate change.”

While methane may be with us for a shorter amount of time than its longer-lasting cousin carbon dioxide, curbing emissions of both greenhouse gases is vital to lower the temperature in the short term as well as ensuring the world doesn’t cook slowly cook over the next few centuries.


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