WASHINGTON (AP) – Methane escaping from the damaged Nord Stream pipeline running between Russia and Europe is likely to be the largest known gas leak in a short period of time and highlights the problem of the large methane leaks elsewhere in the world. , say the scientists.
“From what I’ve seen, this is an unprecedented loss from the atmosphere of fossil methane in a very short time from a concentrated source,” said the president of the US National Academy of Sciences, Marcia McNutt. He oversaw the US government’s efforts to assess the extent of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Methane acts quickly to warm the Earth. The fact that it’s disappearing from the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide, “is probably of little comfort to citizens of Florida and elsewhere who are already being hit by more frequent and deadly tropical storms, fueled by an overheated ocean by greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere,” McNutt said in an email.
There is still uncertainty in estimating the total damage, but researchers say large plumes of this powerful greenhouse gas will have significant damaging impacts on the climate.
The researchers say there will also be immediate damage to marine life and fisheries in the Baltic Sea and to human health because benzene and other trace chemicals are often present in natural gas.
“This will probably be the largest gas leak ever, in terms of its speed,” said Stanford University climate scientist Rob Jackson.
The speed of the gas coming out of four documented pipeline leaks, which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has attributed to sabotage, is part of what makes the impacts severe.
When methane leaks naturally through ocean floor vents, the amounts are usually small and the gas is mostly absorbed by seawater. “But this is not a normal situation for gas release,” Jackson said. “We’re not talking about methane bubbling at the surface like seltzer water, but a flowing plume of gas,” he said.
Jackson and other scientists estimate that between 50% and nearly 100% of the total methane emitted by the pipeline will reach the atmosphere.
The Danish government issued a worst-case scenario of all the gas reaching the air, and German officials on Thursday issued a slightly lower one.
Meanwhile, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to get near the highly flammable plume to try to stem the gas release, which energy experts estimate could continue into Sunday.
“Methane is very flammable; if you go in there, there’s a good chance it’s going to be a funeral pyre,” said Ira Leifer, an atmospheric scientist. If the gas/air mixture was within a certain range, an airplane could easily ignite traveling into the plume, for example.
Methane is not the only risk. “Natural gas is not refined to be very clean; there are trace elements of other compounds, such as benzene,” Leifer said.
“The amount of these trace elements cumulatively going into the environment is significant at this point, it’s going to cause problems for fisheries and marine ecosystems and the people who potentially eat these fish,” he said.
David Archer, a professor in the University of Chicago’s department of geophysical sciences who focuses on the global carbon cycle, said methane escaping into the Baltic Sea is part of the much larger global problem of methane emissions.
Gas is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for a significant portion of the climate disruption people are already experiencing. That’s because it’s 82.5 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at absorbing heat from the sun and warming the Earth, in the short term.
Climate scientists have found that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are far worse than companies are reporting, despite big companies’ claims that they have reduced their emissions.
Scientists measuring methane from satellites in space have found that emissions from oil and gas operations are often at least twice as high as reported by the companies, said Thomas Lauvaux, a climate scientist at the University of Reims in France.
Many of these so-called leaks are not accidental. Companies release the gas during routine maintenance. Lauvaux and other scientists observed more than 1,500 major methane leaks worldwide, and potentially tens of thousands of smaller leaks, using satellites, he said.
AP reporters Patrick Whittle contributed from Portland, Maine, Seth Borenstein from Washington, DC and Cathy Bussewitz from New York.
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