(12p) Methane and Climate change

Finely, a recent measure suggests that the rise in C02-levels are now almost under control. Unfortunately, now methane-levels (CH4, an about 20 times more powerful greenhouse gas than C02 although with a shorter life) is rising at an alarming speed. They (i.e. scientists) are wondering why this is happening and where it comes from. Of course, they have ideas.
Chemical formulas of the main greenhouse gasses: (a) water vapor, (b) carbon dioxyde, (c) methane, (d) nitrous oxide and (e) ozone while the group of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is too large to show.

Possible origins of increase in methane

First, they think probably agriculture is mainly to blame as it produces methane while CO2 is the main component from burning fossil fuels and thus mainly manmade. Thus, while now the release of CO2 slows down, the release of CH4 increases. The result may be that many people will focus attention on animals such as cows and pigs who fart and thus release organic gasses (as do humans), such as CH4. And thus, some (many) will insist the numbers of animals need to go down as the reasoning will be that fewer animals equals less methane production and thus less global warming. But, as the numbers of people who eat less or no meat are growing and thus fewer animals need to be kept in captivity (certainly in the West) while increasing numbers of wild animals face extinction, I doubt that animals are mainly responsible for this CH4 increase as animals existed over the past millions of years. And being vegetarian is healthier, more animal-friendly and sustainable as wool and milk can be taken almost as long as the animal lives while meat is only short term.
To be honest, scientists also consider the fossil fuel industry, including fracking, oil drilling and some coal mining, as it seems to release at least a third of the methane. But, although a third is not a small amount, many people may not blame this industry as much as they may blame farming as the fossil fuel industry is considered necessary for the economy while farming is often considered a cost (although keeps us alive). In addition, as demonstrated over the past millions of years, in general nature is in balance and thus what is released by one organism is taken up again by something else unless the balance is disturbed by something like humans burning the captured fossils with all its consequences although often we blame everything except ourselves so we do not need to change our own behaviour for the better. And thus, as it is good for the economy, some politicians start to convince themselves that fracking is better than burning oil and coal and thus the way forward while investments in renewables are considered too expensive but probably result in too little return for investors when everyone produces their own energy. Oil companies on the other hand look forward to make deals with whatever politicians in order to be able to exploit oil and gas fields. But in the end, too much mixing between these two may bring down the careers of politicians and businesspeople.
The article also mentions what I think is the main reason for this increase in CH4 although it is a result of the earlier decades long release of CO2: methane released from and from around the poles, and certainly from the Arctic. Indeed, the CH4 increase is mainly above the northern part of our planet where most land with vegetation can be found except the pole itself that is mainly frozen water in contrast to Antarctica where little grows as it is covered with ice. Over the past years, the Arctic has been warmer than normal, this winter even 20 to 30°C above its average temperature while the increase is not as significant above Antarctica although also there ice melts. This means that at places where it should freeze today, ice continues to melt as if it is summer and thus, due to the extended high temperatures, more white (reflective) ice on land and oceans melts so more heat can be captured by the darker land and water while CO2 and methane, that was encapsulated in this ice and frozen land can escape. And as CH4 is a powerful greenhouse gas, warming happens more in the Arctic than Antarctica, resulting in greater imbalance between the poles while the difference between Arctic and equator becomes smaller that eventually may cause a knock-on effect that will be felt all over the planet. A change in temperature seems to be able to shift the polar winds (such as the polar vortex) as already happened a few times, bringing extreme weather over certain parts of America and Europe. In addition, plants grow longer and become larger but eventually leaves and plants die during the winter. This is then consumed by bacteria that produce large amounts of the organic greenhouse gasses. And thus, shocking rice in methane levels, even when it seems CO2 levels are under control. Here evidence this is already happening. And as this happens, people voted for someone who doesn’t seem to believe in climate change and thus already increased support for the fossil fuel industries, certainly as he appointed a previous boss of Exxon Mobil as his Secretary of State (= Minister of Foreign Affairs who has good relations with president Putin of Russia so this relationship may benefit the USA such as oil contracts in the Arctic. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to have a good relationship with Russia (and China) on condition we don't ignore for economic benefits our own high standards on human rights while simply opposing Russia because it is Russia will also not bring peace - although thinking that someone who bombs hospitals and schools to keep Assad of Syria in power is good shows bad judgement). But the brightest are those who (1) oppose climate change agreements so (2) they can sell oil and gas to places that use money to buy fossil fuels but invest too little in renewables while (3) locally those brightest embrace wind power to produce cheap electricity to sell locally and to other states so they only gain and become wealthier. And thus, while the Giants gain powers and align or oppose each other, this may be short-lived as denial of climate change may also accelerate their own fall, unfortunately bringing down many others with them.

Tipping points

And thus, climate tipping point after tipping point seems to be breaking as if the point of no return has been reached: 400 ppm CO2 levels in the atmosphere, smaller areas of land and oceans covered with ice so more heat is absorbed that further helps to increase earth’s temperature while summer starts earlier and winter later so at the poles more ice melts while methane that was trapped in the ground, oceans and ice for centuries/millenniums is released. But also, plants grow longer and bigger so more vegetation is broken down to release, again, more methane although more plants also means more CO2 captured from the air within these plants. And sea ice that melts probably results in changes in ocean currents as passages are cleared and because of changes in water temperature. These events have knock-on effects that can be felt all over our planet, resulting in draughts or flooding, windless periods followed by fearful storms (and maybe one day a storm so heavy it seems to be coming from the four corners of the planet, i.e. north, east, south and west as also climate scientists predict more powerful storms). Sometimes it even seems as if the numbers of earthquakes are rising; maybe because melting ice at one place means more water elsewhere that results in changes in the weight on the earth that causes instability although earthquakes always happened because of the internal engine of the earth. Let’s hope the film “An Inconvenient Truth” by the politician Al Gore was not a warning of what may come although it was based on scientific models.
And although many religious extremists claim to deny climate change science, already religious violence is on the rise in many places because of what people come to consider as the fulfilment of prophesies - as can be read in many blogs about religion while even films like Lord of the Ring, Noah and Avatar refer to end times that is the rise of a total disregard for our planet although there are those who will try to protect it. Still, although (religious) people often blame others (including Gods) for events humans cause so they don’t need to take responsibility and change behaviour, it may indeed be prophesised that the change in climate will strengthen otherwise normal occurring events and this like “a women in labour”, i.e. with faster occurring tipping points and worsening events that will affect everyone and everything on this planet, something on which both scientists and religious people can agree. On the other hand, it is also prophesised that after the events (let's hope this is correct) humans will have learned and indeed behave better in the hope that our changed behaviour will prevent that in future such events happen again although it may go wrong one last time but then technology and Artificial Intelligence may try to save the planet. And we need to learn because, although maybe these events may restore the balance again such as refreshment of the oceans with the melting ice, this can’t happen again and again: if all ice on the poles and mountains are gone and we continue to pollute, then there can be no more refreshing. And when all animals such as elephants and lions are gone, we can only observe them in films or if we genetically engineer them to return, something we are not yet able to do.
And although mainly in Muslim and African countries tensions are high as inequality is big and a few degrees warmer in hot countries means even more discomfort while natural resources and food become scarcer so people fight for the last remaining bits; remember this is not exclusive for those areas as someone in Norway murdered almost 80 youngsters because they celebrated a multicultural society while in the USA a trial decided that a white boy deserves the death penalty for killing black churchgoers in the hope it would start a race war; even tensions between and within countries are growing. Worldwide some people are going mad as they notice that the world they knew is disappearing and thus people become unsure as they want back the certainties of the past.
Imagine a box with thick mud and two identical blocks that are connected with each other are place on it. After some time, they will sink to a certain depth until upward and downward forces are equal so they remain in place. Then press on block A with a certain force and the block will sink while the force will spread throughout the thick mud, moving the mud but also block B will move upwards. As block B is upwards, it will press back and the moment the hand no longer presses block A downwards, block B will slowly sink back into the mud while block A will move upwards, partly because the downward pressure is gone and partly because block B pushes it upwards and this until a new equilibrium is reached (although probably not completely the starting position as the mud is thick). Also the connecting areas will have moved. Now, consider the hand is millions of kilos of ice while the mud is the hot core of the earth and some water between the blocks are oceans. And this ice is melting.

Other consequences than climate change as a result of the use of fossil fuels

Of course, it is possible these high temperatures are a one-off and next year all is normal again. Still, even if climate change may not be real (which would be against the laws of chemistry and physics), changing from using fossils to other energy forms is beneficial for everyone.

  1. Oceans, seas and rivers

Fossil fuels don’t only cause climate change, they also have many other consequences. Already it is advised not to eat too much oily fish during pregnancy as they contain high levels of mercury. But after the major Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, an increase in abnormally formed hearts and other defects in many fish such as tuna was seen due to the toxins released of which some store in fat tissue. Also animals get stuck in plastics and die while plastics break down in oceans into very small pieces which are then eaten by animals that live in these waters. And thus, as ocean animals such as tuna and mussels are popular, people eat this kind of food and the result is that toxins and heavy metals are stored in our fat from which they are released, even after women stop eating this food during pregnancy, potentially increasing the numbers of birth defects. Still, other reasons such as medicines may be blamed. Indeed, pollution always returns in one way or another. And thus, we may need to become vegetarian to reduce our intake of toxins (unless vegetables grow on poisonous ground) while unfortunately we may need the melting of the poles with its consequences to dilute the toxins in the oceans so animals living in these waters can survive while now large numbers start to die as poisonous and even dead zones occur. And, the more difficult the conditions become for the fish, the more likely humans but also predatory fish and births will catch even more fish so their numbers will further tumble - the circle of death. And thus, we must try to reduce polluting and exploiting our world and not start to quarrel over oil and gas fields in the Arctic so we may not only start to fight because of shortage of food but also because we want more of that what causes our troubles. But unfortunately, some people simply are unable to accept change is needed as that means they have to accept others were right - the article also describes how changes in one system can enforce changes in other systems. And changes in our behaviour can help the earth recover: in the 80s, very polluting cars and factories poisoned the air and resulted in mass death amongst trees due to acid rain until cars and companies were forced to be cleaner so forests recovered, showing nature can recuperate although the pollution may one day turn up in the drinking water from deep below the earth so by that time we will need clean rivers for water. But acidification and depletion of oxygen in oceans continue as we speak.

  1. Air

And people are starting to panic and start to refer to "airpocalypse" in some places. As mentioned before, changes in the weather give some religious extremists an opportunity to increase aggression against other religious groups and innocent bystanders to gain followers as they hope their side will win. But also, not only do some scientists claim the numbers of animals need to go down to prevent more climate change or people should be allowed to kill rare animals for money so this money can be used to preserve other animals, some also claim that air pollution in cities is high because of the presence of (certain) trees as this results in less movement of fresh air. Today, not only in European places, but also elsewhere air quality is down because the change in climate results in changes in the weather such as airflows that further contribute to bad air. Still, in many places people start to protest, even in countries where one needs courage to suit governments while even here protesters against continuous use of fossil fuels are ridiculed or even arrested as fear for demonstrations grow while the call of all that is death (oil and gas, wood, gold, silver, killed animals) but earns large sums of money is difficult to resist for many.
And polluted air we inhale is not only bad for our lungs, but we now start to understand it even penetrates our brains, causing illnesses (as if we still didn’t know that we should replace cars that pollute with clean cars). Indeed, when air is very polluted, people start to complain about pain in lungs and headaches. I think also microscopic creatures such as fungi and toxoplasmosis are attached to the polluting particles and thus can penetrate our bodies and cells, making us feel ill and tired. And thus, air quality needs to improve, certainly for small children who “breathe in” at the same height as cars ‘breathe out’. Therefore, support in investments in cheaper electric cars and a network of chargers is needed, preferably on sun energy while today the car industry continues to produce "cheap" fossil fuel-driven cars so people buy them instead of the more expensive electric ones although the industry probably hopes legislation will one day force people to buy clean cars that the industry can then continue to sell at high prices.
And thus, trees and green areas are needed for clean air but also to relax. An example is London where decades ago air pollution was very bad and deadly until trees were planted that filter the air while large parks provide refuse from busy streets. But maybe blaming trees is an excuse to allow that trees are cut so space comes available to build wooden so-called "sustainable" buildings with the argument they may result in cleaner air. And whilst indeed young growing trees filter CO2 out of the air as they grow, also older trees do this and are probably better in it because of their seize and thus I don't believe that some kinds of sustainable buildings are a solution. But also grasses are needed as they too need CO2 to live and thus parks are important in cities, not only to have clean air as they remove CO2 from the air but also so people can relax. Of course, one can argue that less trees are needed with electric cars (although we can't replace all polluting cars at ones) but we still need to remove much of the CO2 as planes and in poorer regions people may continue to pollute while natural fires also produce CO2. And a look to the most air polluted cities shows they often lack green areas.
Water vapour
Also water vapor is a greenhouse gas and it seems a major one, although as long as the atmosphere is in equilibrium I don't think we need to fear it as it even helps to restore imbalances between regions. Indeed, proof that this gas influences our atmosphere comes from experience because humid warm air feels very hot as it holds more energy and because it's more difficult to sweat and thus cool down our body temperature. But equally, humid cold air feels very cold as the cold moisture sticks to our bodies and cools us as it removes energy from our body to increase its temperature. Compare this with a dry atmosphere that feels more pleasant at the same temperatures. This also influences the weather as humid air results in rain while dry air not. Further, differences in temperature and moisture result in winds blowing from high (cold) to low (warm) pressure regions so warm and cold air and moisture are distributed over the planet and those differences remain within limits. And of course, it is more complex than the above.

However, when the system is disturbed, water vapor may have major consequences. Indeed, due to climate change, it is predicted the earth will warm and thus more water can evaporate, strengthening the feeling of a warmer world and thus probably making it more intolerable while warm water helps to create low pressure as the air above it rises and as a result moisture is sucked into the air where it cools at high altitude to form clouds. Elsewhere air from high pressure areas move towards those low pressure regions and a powerful storm may be born. And a system out of balance can have unforeseen effects as happened in New Zealand where in the middle of summer places are covered with snow as very warm air from Australia rises and takes moisture from the ocean up to very high altitudes before it cools sufficiently to come down as snow. Further, as the poles warm more than elsewhere (and thus more moisture in the air that may fall as more snow), differences in temperate between regions may temporarily become smaller and thus winds may weaken while also the melting of ice results in changes in water currents. As a result, either unpredictable cold weather may occur because the polar vortex changes or cold winds may no longer blow to cool warmer regions, future may tell. Also deforestation results in less cloud formation and rain and thus may further warm these areas with possible changes in air pressure, resulting in more or less winds. And warmer land means warmer oceans so more water evaporates into a warmer atmosphere that can hold more moisture. But whatever happens, sometimes the air will no longer be able to absorb more water vapour and water will fall down, be it as rain, snow or hail. Indeed, in normal situations water vapor restores the balance but what when the system becomes unbalanced? Still, even in a new world the balance will return, with or without life on it.

And thus, yes, climate change is happening and humans are polluting and destroying this planet whereby not only many humans suffer but also species after species face an uncertain future with the possibility of extinction. And as a result, tensions are growing between those who want to continue as before as they deny science and those who believe that science can bring forward a better future with respect for everything on this planet. Of course, those who believe in a better future are not so naïve to think that at ones all oil and gas will no longer be needed such as in planes but they promote an increase in the use of home-produced clean energy and thus as much as possible a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and even nuclear energy as this can go seriously wrong while oil and gas and radioactive material can continue to be used for other purposes such a making plastic furniture or in the healthcare instead of simply being burned.

And thus, yes, as a scientist myself, I believe that science has solutions for many problems and can be used so people can live cleaner and cheaper while science may also find solutions to reduce the already available pollution such as the plastics in oceans. Examples: use of electronic devises so trees are not killed for paper - electricity from renewables made at people's homes - storage of energy on individual systems such as cars, tablets and TV together with larger batteries for emergencies. But I'm not sure a solution includes the refreezing of oceans as I think the money is better used to help ordinary people to invest in renewables and clean cars and thus reduce the pollution produced. And having a little more C02 in the air compared with centuries ago may even have beneficial results when we allow the planet to recover and the return of nature such as forests that have a cooling effect themselves.


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