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Climate change: fracking may be doing more damage than we thought

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As greenhouse gases go, methane gets less attention than carbon dioxide, but it is a key contributor to climate change.

Methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2 and is reabsorbed into terrestrial cycles via chemical reactions within 12 years or so. But while it’s up there, it’s much more potent, trapping heat at roughly 84 times the rate of CO2. Scientists estimate that around 25 percent of current global warming traces to methane.

When it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, the chain between cause and effect is frustratingly long and diffuse. Reduced emissions today won’t show up as reduced climate impacts for decades.

But with methane, the chain of causation is much shorter and simpler. Reduced emissions have an almost immediate climate impact. It’s a short-term climate lever, and if the countries of the world are going to hold rising temperatures to the United Nations’ target of “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial baseline, they’re going to need all the short-term climate levers they can get.

In the real world, though, the news about methane is bad and getting worse. It turns out that a mysterious recent spike in global methane levels that’s putting climate targets at risk may be coming from US oil and gas fracking. If that’s true, it’s bad news, because there’s lots more shale gas development in the pipeline and the Trump administration is busy rolling back regulations on the industry.

The mysterious spike in atmospheric methane may lead to America’s doorstep

Global methane emissions rose steeply in the last decades of the 20th century and then leveled off. But around 2006, they started heading up again. Why? What was the source? Scientists were baffled. (Jonathan Mingle wrote a great story for Undark on scientists’ search for answers.)

There are two broad sources of methane emissions: biogenic (plant and animal-based) and fossil fuel production. The former is mainly about agriculture (cow burps, pig poop, rotting organic waste) and tropical wetlands. As for the latter, methane is leaked or deliberately “flared” (burned off) at virtually every stage of fossil fuel production and transport, a problem that is notoriously bad for fracked shale gas and tight oil.

A few studies, including a major one in the journal Science in 2016, largely traced the recent spike in methane to biogenic sources, mainly because recent atmospheric methane has been “lighter,” depleted of its heavier carbon stable isotope (13C). Generally speaking, fossil fuel production produces heavier methane and biogenic sources produce lighter methane, so researchers have taken the trend as an indication that the recent spike is mostly biogenic in origin.

But it was a perplexing finding, one that the Science authors characterized as “unexpected, given the recent boom in unconventional gas production and reported resurgence in coal mining and the Asian economy.” If you see a big boom in fossil fuel production happening alongside a big spike in methane, you might expect to find the two connected.

In a new paper released in Biogeosciences, Robert Howarth of Cornell University has proposed a solution to the riddle.

Howarth is a familiar name to those who have followed methane debates over the years. He and colleagues at Cornell have been arguing for years that natural gas methane emissions are much higher than the government estimates or the industry admits, high enough to wipe out its supposed climate advantage over coal. That is a controversial position, to say the least. (Estimates of methane leakage vary widely, but Howarth’s is at the very top end.)

In his latest paper, Howarth is making a different point, springing from two facts he says previous studies have overlooked.


US natural gas by source

EIA

First, 63 percent of the total increase in global natural gas production in the 21st century has come from shale gas. And second, shale gas production using modern hydrofracturing techniques tends to produce lighter methane than conventional natural gas drilling.

Howarth finds that if the lighter methane of shale gas production is explicitly accounted for, “shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased [methane] emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.”

Since 89 percent of the shale gas production comes from the US (Canada produced the rest), that’s a whole lot of accelerated global warming tracing right back to America’s front door.

It is worth emphasizing that this is only one paper in a very active field of research, from a controversial source, and it is sure to be debated and contested in coming years. But if it is right, or even only half right, it is bad news.

All signs point toward increased methane in coming years

If increased methane from shale gas is helping drive the spike in global methane emissions, the climate is in serious trouble, because there is every indication that shale gas emissions are higher than generally estimated and set to keep rising.

First, six years of intensive research from the Environmental Defense Fund has shown that methane emissions from US oil and natural gas production are as much as 60 percent higher than government estimates. This recent paper in Science summarizes: “Methane emissions of this magnitude, per unit of natural gas consumed, produce radiative forcing over a 20-year time horizon comparable to the CO2 from natural gas combustion.” Getting natural gas out of the ground and to its final destination releases as much methane as burning it — which, whether or not it makes gas “worse than coal,” makes it pretty bad.

Meanwhile, as Jennifer Dlouhy reports for Bloomberg, “the Trump administration is readying a plan to end direct federal regulation of methane leaks from oil and gas facilities, even as some energy companies insist they don’t want the relief.” The high-profile energy companies, the ones with large operations and lots of exposure to public opinion, rightly see this as a terrible idea. It makes them look like climate villains; it increases their exposure to climate risk and future policy shifts; it makes investors uncertain and hesitant. Oh, and it exacerbates climate change.

But the little companies, with lots of small, leaky wells scattered about, don’t want to be forced to clean them up; in many cases, being forced to run clean would destroy the economics and shut down the wells.

And Trump is personally dedicated to reversing everything Obama did, so … methane-wise, it’s back to the Wild West.


Trump speaks into a microphone as Wheeler looks on.

Trump with his EPA director Andrew Wheeler.
Getty Images

Third and most disturbingly, the US appears to be in the early stages of a massive fracking infrastructure buildout. A recent report from Food & Water Watch (FWW) charted this buildout, identifying “more than 700 fracked gas infrastructure projects that have been recently built or proposed for development.”

There are liquid natural gas export terminals: “In 2018, there were only three active LNG export facilities in the U.S., but 22 more were either being built or approved for construction, and an additional 22 were pending federal review by the end of the year.” There is the plastics industry, with “more than $202 billion slated for investment in ​333 new or expanded facilities.” And there is the electricity sector, with “plans to develop ​364 new fracked gas-fired plants​ by 2022.”

Despite escalating concerns over the climate impact of natural gas and signs that it is flagging somewhat in the electricity sector, the industry seems poised for enormous expansion. That is wildly irresponsible in the face of the widely agreed upon (by everyone but Republicans) need to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, in the US and globally, by midcentury.

With jurisdiction over the rapidly metastasizing shale gas industry, the US has direct control over one of the biggest and fastest-growing sources of potent, fast-acting methane. That means it also has, within its reach, the ability to make early and substantial progress on climate change.

Several Democratic candidates have proposed ending fracking on public lands; only a few (Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders, and Tom Steyer) have explicitly proposed pursuing a national ban. That hasn’t been a top-tier policy dispute yet, but as scientists make the grim effects of fracking clearer and clearer, it’s going to become one.

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7 Hidden Messages in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” That Weren’t Meant for Kids

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Lewis Carroll’s tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had an amazing influence on cinema, literature, and even psychology: movies and ballets were based on it, sequels and remakes were written. There is even a psychological disorder named after the main character: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AWS). This seemingly innocent children’s story was the subject of heated discussions by scientists of the 20th century and even Freud talked about it. The point of the discussions was simple: was the tale written for children or for adults?

Bright Side has read the book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded” and tried to figure out which parts of the story can only be understood by adults.

1. Alice’s shrinking and growing is a sign of puberty.

When Alice ate a cake or drank a certain mixture, Alice would shrink or grow, and she was scared that she would disappear completely. While there were no actual reasons for the changes in her body in the text, scientists have 3 versions of what could have been the hidden meaning behind that episode:

  • Alice’s body changes in a similar way to how it would change as a teenager during puberty. Many people think that Carroll showed the puberty of the character. But why this idea may also be wrong is because Alice is only 7 years old and it is too young to be a teenager.
  • Astronomers link the character with the expanding Universe. According to one of the theories, the amount of matter in the Universe is constantly decreasing which will ultimately lead to its disappearance. Obviously, this is why the character was worried about shrinking so much that she would vanish.
  • Other people see an indication of hallucinogenic substances, which make people completely disoriented, just like Alice.

2. The pig the character has is an English King.

It is believed that the tale is an allusion to the War of the Roses that took place in England in the 15th century. This time period was full of scheming, betrayal, and there were a lot of chopped heads — just like in the tale.

Assuming the guess is correct, then baby that turned into the pig is a member of the White Rose. And more specifically, it was Richard III who had a sigil with a white boar. Shakespeare even wrote a play about it where he presented Richard in a very bad light.

3. The smell of pepper in the house of the Duchess hides the smell of bad food.

The tale casually mentions that the house of the Duchess smells a lot like pepper because the scullery was adding pepper to the soup. But it may have been a hint at the problem that the food at the time was peppered a lot, to kill the smell of rotten ingredients.

4. Alice is Eve, who becomes a sinner.

The adventures of Alice starts in a quiet garden. It was an idyllic place, green and quiet, and that’s why it reminds many people the Garden of Eden. But Alice doesn’t take an apple, she goes down the rabbit hole and goes into a world that gives rise to incredible changes in her. This theory seems to be pretty logical: children are innocent but when Alice went into the hole (took the apple), she entered the world of puberty, adult life, and became a sinner.

5. Keys, doors, and caterpillars are Freudian symbols.

When Freudian theories became very popular around the world, the tale of Alice turned out to be full of gynecological symbols. The fans of Freud managed to see the symbols in the doors that were hidden behind the curtains, and keys that open these doors. Of course, they couldn’t have missed Absolem — the giant caterpillar that looks like a you know what.

Even though this theory has life, it is not very believable, because people can see these symbols everywhere if they really want to.

6. Walrus and Carpenter are actually Buddha and Jesus.

This is the name of the poem that the twin brothers Tweedledee and Tweedledum read to Alice. The poem tells the story about Walrus and Carpenter, that walk on the beach and call out for oysters to walk with them. The oysters go to the shore and Walrus and Carpenter eat them. Walrus then cries at the end.

There are several interpretations:

  • Walrus is a caricature of Buddha, and Carpenter is Jesus. For example, the character Loki from Dogma believes this. The logic is simple: Walrus is fat and happy, so he is Buddha or elephant Ganesha, and Carpenter is the direct reference to the profession of the father of Jesus.
  • J. Priestly is convinced that the poem is the story of England’s (Walrus) colonization of America (Carpenter).
  • There is a more violent interpretation. Some people believe that Walrus and Carpenter are politicians that kill the masses — the oysters.

7. The poem about the White Rabbit in chapter 12 uncovers the love mystery of Carroll himself.

Some researchers see the reference to the unusual connection between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell that was the prototype of the main character. Here are the lines we are talking about:

He sent them word I had not gone

(We know it to be true):

If she should push the matter on,

What would become of you?

This is one of the most sensitive moments in the interpretation of the tale. Some people think that when the girl was supposed to come of age, the writer was going to marry her, but for some reason he had an argument with Mrs. Liddell and he never saw the members of the family since.

Do you want to read the tale now that you have some new knowledge about it in order to find some new hidden meaning? If yes, you can read the original manuscript written by Carroll himself here.

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What 20 Celebs Looked Like at the Start of Their Career

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Celebrities are usually known for their biggest successful works, but most of them stepped into the entertainment world with smaller roles. A lot of them have been in the industry for so long that we’ve forgotten what they looked like when they first started. Taking a look at some of their earliest works is indeed a blast from the past.

Bright Side looks into some of the earliest works from certain actors and is amazed at how much they have grown within the industry.

1. George Clooney

2. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

3. Keanu Reeves

4. Brie Larson

5. Betty White

6. Leonardo DiCaprio

7. Drew Barrymore

8. Tom Hanks

9. Scarlett Johannson

10. Halle Berry

11. Harrison Ford

12. Denzel Washington

13. Reese Witherspoon

14. Angelina Jolie

15. Johnny Depp

16. Jennifer Garner

17. Robert Downey Jr.

18. Will Smith

19. Nicole Kidman

20. Sandra Bullock

Have you seen the early works of these celebrities before? Do you know what any other famous entertainers looked like when they first began their career?

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14 Examples of How Perfect Photos on Social Media Can Mislead Us

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Most Internet users tend to sugarcoat their lives, belongings, body shapes, etc. And Instagram is the perfect place to post these kinds of photos. It’s a world of successful, happy people who take colorful trips, make expensive purchases, and boast perfect bodies.

Bright Side found some “behind-the-scenes” photos of gorgeous shots from social media. Turns out, believing everything you see on the Internet is never a good idea.

1. A 3-minute smartphone photo session + 3 magic filters

2. The king of the road

3. It’s all about the right angle…

4. A popular festival on Instagram vs a popular festival in reality

5. Support is the real hero.

6. A dog can never spoil a shot.

7. Slightly added brightness

8. When summer starts, we see it on every other Instagram account.

9. The process of making up always finishes the same way.

10. Unicorns can be insidious.

11. Everyone wants a photo in a lavender field.

12. Bright cities in photos might not be as bright in real life.

13. Aboard a private jet

14. A fashionable breakfast

Do you edit your photos on social media to try to look better? We’d be happy to hear from you in the comments!

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