Swamp Gases in Cold Places

Recent pictures of methane bubbles in northern lakes are stunningly beautiful. We used to explain the familiar bubbles like these (but unfrozen of course) in an Alabama lake or in the bayou along the Mississippi coast as “swamp gas” – not “natural gas.” Same thing. Today’s “natural” gas is swamp gas from millions of years ago when plants and phytoplankton died and decayed into minerals and gases trapped in rock or as frozen hydrates.

Swamp gas, then, is a energy-releasing carbon fuel. You can find lots of short videos of the stuff being set to flame when those frozen bubbles are punctured and a match set to the escaping invisible gas. This is much safer to body parts that the similar trick once popular amongst adolescent boys. But now I suppose girls will admit to this risky if entertaining behavior too. But I digress.

When methane reaches the air it reacts with the atmosphere  over time to form  CO2 and water vapor. Both the initial methane (CH4) and  and the resulting CO2 are, as you know, greenhouse gases, with methane more than 150 times more potent during its first years in the air and 25 times as potent over the first 100 years.

â–º What we have not appreciated until recently is that there is about twice as much carbon in the form of methane than the carbon in all of the coal and petroleum fuels already mined or still remaining in the ground. We should leave methane in the form of ocean floor hydrates or in the permafrost right where it is, but the stuff looks like dollar signs to too many who own drills, baby, drill.

â–º What we have not appreciated until recently is that methane levels in the atmosphere are rising dramatically–especially in the far north where warming is so much greater than at the mid-latitudes where I live. And the more reflective white Arctic ocean ice and Greenland ice that melts, the more heat is absorbed by dark ground or water instead of reflected back into space. [New cameras are coming on line to measure CH4 and I expect that what we will see over the Arctic–in a few years  when these cameras look back from space–to be staggering.]

At the present rate of carbon-fuel burning around the globe, we are adding the equivalent heat of 4 Hiroshima-sized blasts EVERY SECOND. The sun’s heat gets in and can’t re-radiate through the blanket of blocking gases. The thicker the blanket, the more heat is held in. The darker the surface, the more sunlight is kept as surface heat.

Global Warming at 4 Hiroshima Atomic Bombs Per Second

The sooner we stop adding to and then began taking back from those blanketing blocking gases to put them back in the ground through low-tech soils-based means (you’ll hear much soon about geo-engineering to create an Arctic shade) the fewer centuries of climate chaos will follow the end of the era of the boomers like me.

‘Climate intervention’ strategies unlikely to work – Business Insider

It’s too late to see the benefits of our interventions in our short remaining days here. The question is whether we are made of the right stuff to sacrifice our comfort today for a future we will never reach. Will we?

Since 1950 and the beginning of “the Great Acceleration” we have witnessed and contributed to the steepest part of the upward curve towards a runaway climate. We will not see how this thing ends. But I continue to hope that history will look back on the actions of our generation and the one that comes after us as the turning point.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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