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Feeding the monster

"Climate change" has replaced "global warming" as the description of choice for the biggest environmental problem facing the earth, but in some aspects, "warming" is actually the issue. This is particularly true in the Arctic where rising average temperatures are affecting the frozen peatlands that form much of the land mass above the Arctic Circle. These wetlands are full of dead and decaying plant matter, comprising 4 per cent of the landmass but representing 20 per cent of the carbon stored on land. As the land thaws, microbes go to work on the organic matter and release carbon dioxide or methane, roughly depending on whether the soil is above or below the water table. Carbon dioxide lasts centuries in the atmosphere and methane lasts only about twelve years, however it is 20 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Argonne National Laboratories, the latest incarnation of the Manhattan Project, under contract to the US Department of the Environment, has recently developed an accurate way to model the effect of these emissions as (and not if...) the Arctic warms.

Methane is a colourless, odourless, flammable gas. It is stored everywhere there is carbon and recently, energy companies have begun to explore its possibilities as an alternative to more traditional fossil fuels. The problem is the potential disasters attached to its extraction, most notably by fracturing shale or "fracking." A future blog will explore all the problems associated with fracking, but suffice to say that it is a huge concern in communities built on shale beds: the Canadian film Burning Water, for example, tells the story of a family in rural Alberta and their battle to prove that the Encana fuel company's fracking on their land polluted their water and badly affected their health, causing chemical burns when they stood under the shower. Residents of some US Eastern Seaboard towns where fracking has allowed methane to seep into the ground water and local wells have reported being able to set fire to water flowing from their domestic taps. And, in California, the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered an investigation into reported dumping of contaminated water from fracking into acquifers and community water supplies.

Before the Industrial Revolution, sources of methane in the atmosphere included decomposing organic matter, rice cultivation, and livestock, but emission levels were such that they dissipated safely in the atmosphere. Now, however, burning fossil fuels in our internal combustion engines, intensive livestock farming and rice farming, and huge concentrations of decomposing organic matter in landfill, are overloading our atmosphere with this lethal greenhouse gas.

There is a potential positive aspect to methane, in the form of methane hydrates, crystals formed by methane and water in areas such as the floors of the Mackenzie River delta, the Arctic, and Canada's northern Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The pressure of the water and the low temperatures form this "fire ice," which is known to block oil pipelines in cold climates but which might represent a new form of clean energy, if (and that is a huge unknown) it can be extracted without further polluting the atmosphere or destabilizing the sea bed. As we already know, petroleum burns us twice: once when we extract it from the earth and once when we burn it and release it into the atmosphere. Methane could be the same thing. Canada and Japan had a joint research project (Japan contributed $60 million; we put in $16 million) to explore methane hydrate's possibilities, but we stepped back from it this year, leaving Japan to continue with the research.

We can't see it with our naked eyes, but satellite images from space reveal a huge cloud of methane leaking into the atmosphere over the so-called Four Corners of the US where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. This area is the country's largest coal-bed extraction mining site and the methane cloud predates fracking operations there. We must learn to understand and control this substance before it's too late. We couldn't see our domestic aerosols attacking the ozone layer either....

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