10 Ways Methane Could Brake Global Warming—or Break the Planet

The enigmatic gas is a valuable fuel and a dangerous digestive waste product.

By Susannah Locke|Friday, July 04, 2008

Methane is a paradox. It increases global warming at the same time that it promises abundant alternative energy. The gas is all around the planet, from the atmosphere to deep below seabeds. Here are 10 trends and discoveries that may determine methane's ultimate role in the health of the environment:

Curing Cows’ Methane Problem with Kangaroo Bacteria
Kangaroos don’t emit any methane. Transfering bacteria from kangaroo guts to cows might help cut down on the ruminants' methane footprint (hoofprint?).

Cow-Powered Train
This locomotive runs on methane produced by decomposing cow patties and dead cattle. Its efficiency is more than two miles per head of cattle.

Earth’s Frozen Methane Stash
Global warming seems to be accelerating the release of methane trapped in permafrost and below Arctic ice. The stores total more than some trillion tons of this greenhouse gas. If it all thaws out, we may see the highest levels of atmospheric methane in 10,000 years. 

Global Warming Makes the Arctic Hot Property
Countries from Russia to Canada are eyeing Arctic territory that are expected to thaw in the future, freeing up its methane riches, which could be used as an alternative energy source.

Plants Make Greenhouse Gas
Plants fart, too. We like to think of green, carbon-absorbing vegetation as our ally in the fight against global warming. But it turns out that leaves and grasses produce methane. They also make more methane at higher temperatures, which doesn’t bode well given Earth’s toasty future.

Death by The Ultimate Gas Leak
An explosion of deep sea methane may have caused the Permian extinction, which destroyed most of Earth’s inhabitants about 250 million years ago. The blast could have roiled the seas enough to asphyxiate fish and may have even set the planet on fire.

Will the Methane Bubble Burst?
Methane-producing microbes under the seafloor may have set the stage for catastrophe, yet again. They have built up so much methane that its release could cause massive global warming or the planet’s next big extinction.

Methane Takes A Break
Beginning in the 1980s, atmospheric methane started increasing at a slower rate than earlier in the century. Researchers suggest reasons for the fortunate decline, which range from the repair of leaky natural gas pipelines to steady acreage of rice paddies, where methane-producing bacteria thrive. (Update: In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that methane is on the rise again after nearly a decade of near stagnation.)

Methane May Hinder Ozone Layer Recovery
Methane not only is a greenhouse gas, it may be attacking the ozone layer, too. Rising methane levels are slowing the ozone layer’s convalescence from chlorofluorocarbons.

10  Ancient Pollution
Whena forest is on fire, trees release gaseousmethane. According to methane records, humans have a long history offouling the air. Two thousand years ago, our ancestors were burning vegetation clear land for farming and to scare game into theopen.

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