Science

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

The recent leak of a Russian gas pipeline to Europe has attracted worldwide attention. Large amounts of gas gurgled out of the sea and natural gas resources were wasted.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

In addition to being heartbroken about these resources, many scientists have voiced deep concern. We know that the main component in natural gas is methane, and methane, while vital to human life, is a very scary greenhouse gas. This North Stream leak means that a large amount of methane is entering the atmosphere, which may exacerbate the already growing greenhouse effect on Earth.

We know that the vast majority of heat on Earth comes from sunlight. When sunlight hits the Earth, part of it is reflected by the atmosphere into space, and another part goes to the surface, where it is then reflected again. Part of it stays inside the atmosphere and heats up the Earth, and the other part is still reflected out.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

However, there are some gases in the Earth's atmosphere that are very powerful and have a high capacity for absorbing those sunlight reflected from the surface. As a result, heat that could have been released is retained by these gases and then re-released into the atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm up, and these gases are known as greenhouse gases.

The most commonly known greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, as it has the greatest impact on the planet. However, there are many other gases besides carbon dioxide that have the same function, only they are often overlooked because of their relatively low levels in the atmosphere. Even water vapor is one of the greenhouse gases, and we just posted a few days ago about the Tonga volcanic eruption earlier in the year that released about 50 million tons of water vapor, which has scientists worried that the Earth will warm up again.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

In the Kyoto Protocol, a total of six categories of gases are listed as greenhouse gases to be controlled in the regulations. In addition to carbon dioxide, there are nitrous oxide (N₂O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and one more, which is methane.

Compared to carbon dioxide, the warming effect of methane on the Earth is even more frightening. Scientists say that on a 20-year scale, methane warms the Earth 80 times more than carbon dioxide. On a 100-year scale, its greenhouse capacity is 100 times greater than that of CO2 (or 30 times greater)!

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

Because of this, methane has also become the most feared greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. And it is also found in higher levels in the atmosphere and from a wider range of sources than other greenhouse gases, so how can scientists not be worried?

Scientists have long puzzled over how to reduce methane emissions in order to control global warming. Before these technologies could emerge, there was another leak in the Nord Stream pipeline, adding to the Earth's climate crisis.

Although the North Creek pipeline where the leak occurred is not currently in operation, it all contains natural gas. Following the pipeline leak, the gas began to escape and enter the atmosphere.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

As a result, scientists are also concerned about how much impact the spilled gas will have on the Earth's climate. However, until now, no one has been able to say exactly how much methane has entered the atmosphere from the spill and how severe the impact on the Earth's climate will be. Experts from different organizations have come up with different figures that have one thing in common: the impact of the spill is very worrying.

Experts point out that: humans have special satellites to monitor gas leaks on land, but due to the different reflection of light on the water surface, these satellites are somewhat helpless against gas leaks at sea, and only airplanes or drones are able to monitor to some extent, which leads to many unknowns in this pipeline leak and affects experts' estimates of the volume and impact of the leak.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

According to a spokesperson for Nord Stream 2, the pipeline contains almost 300 million cubic meters of natural gas. A simple calculation using the density of methane tells us that if all that gas leaked, an estimated 200,000 tons of methane would have entered the atmosphere!

Some experts have used this data to make calculations and conclude that this much methane causes global warming over a 100-year period, roughly equivalent to 6 million tons of CO2! This is equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions of a medium-sized city for one year, or 10% of the total methane emissions in the UK for an entire year.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

In addition to that, there was a leak at North Creek 1, but its director did not disclose how much methane was in the pipeline. Some people speculate based on other data from Nord Stream that the amount of methane here is about 100,000 to 120,000 tons. If all this methane also leaked, the methane entering the atmosphere from this leak may be more than 300,000 tons!

This is not the first time in human history that a similarly severe methane leak has occurred; in 2015, the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in the United States continued into 2016, with almost 97,000 tons of methane entering the atmosphere, leaking about 50 tons of methane per hour at the most.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

Compared to the last one, this one is much larger in volume, enough to make it the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in human history. And this one will last much shorter than the last one, so the peak rate of methane leakage will be an order of magnitude higher.

A foreign commercial methane measurement satellite company called GHGSat states that they estimate, based on available data, that the pipeline was leaking more than 500 metric tons of methane per hour at the time of the first breach. Over time, its pressure and flow rate would have gradually decreased. However, this is a conservative estimate and the actual situation is likely to exceed this figure.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

In addition to the greenhouse effect, the leaking methane has the potential to directly kill nearby organisms. Greenpeace suggests that fish in the vicinity could be caught in the leaking gas stream and have difficulty breathing to the point of death. However, most organizations believe that the leaking gas is not directly lethal to plants and animals, which is considered good news.

It will probably take months or even years for scientists to get the "full picture" of the effects of this gas leak.

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

It is estimated that it will only take about a week for the gas in both pipelines to leak out. The methane in them will only be in the atmosphere for about 10 years, but the effects will be far more far-reaching than the same amount of carbon dioxide.

Moreover, this Nord Stream pipeline spill is so suspicious that the possibility of deliberate sabotage cannot be ruled out. It is for this reason that Stanford University climate scientist Rob Jackson had the audacity to comment on the real culprit behind the destruction of the North Creek pipeline, "The person who ordered this should be prosecuted for war crimes and sent to prison."

How powerful is methane in the North Creek spill, which may be the largest greenhouse gas emissions event in history

Because the North Creek pipeline is located on the sea bed at a depth of 70 to 90 meters and is made of 12 centimeters (5 inches) thick steel with a concrete coating, it makes maintenance extremely difficult. Engineers can work underwater by means of caissons or lift the pipeline above the water surface for repairs.

Either way, the repair cycle will be at least "six months or a year" long.

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