Robert Meeropol





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"Robby & Elli" 1968


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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Methane

April 19, 2016

Tags: Methane, Permian extinction

As Bill McKibben wrote in the April 11th issue of The Nation, many know that CO2 causes global warming, but fewer know about the impact of CH4 (methane).

I’ve worried about methane since I read WHEN LIFE NEARLY DIED, Michael Benton’s 2003 book about the greatest mass extinction event our planet has experienced. It is common knowledge that a giant meteor strike wiped out 50% of the earth’s species, including most dinosaurs, 67 million years ago. Benton’s book focuses on a more terrifying event 251 million years ago that destroyed 90-95% of the planet’s species. He wrote that the extinction “was no local phenomenon, since it has been detected in rocks from China to Spitsbergen, from Greenland to South Africa, from Russia to Australia. In every case, whether looking at events on land, or in the sea, the rate of species loss seems to have been similarly huge. There were no safe refuges, nowhere to hide.”

Scientists are still debating the cause of this die-off that transformed the lush and diverse web of life at the close of the Permian geologic period into a world-spanning wasteland from which life took millions of years to recover. Scientists consider the “Siberian Traps” the leading culprit. These were gigantic volcanic eruptions that inundated an area equivalent in size to the current European Union with lava 4,000 to 10,000 feet thick. These eruptions lasted a million years and spewed massive quantities of carbon and sulfur dioxide. Devastating acid rain and warming followed. But initially scientists had trouble accounting for the 6 degree centigrade global temperature jump that accompanied this calamity.

Enter methane: The 2011 edition of the ROUGH GUIDE TO CLIMATE CHANGE states that “Among all the by-products of the melting Arctic, one stands out in its sheer horror-movie potential. Trapped within the permafrost are billions of tonnes of methane hydrates (also known as methane clathrates). … Beside their presence in permafrost, methane hydrates are even more extensive in seafloor sediments around the margins of continents across the globe. In their supercompacted form, methane hydrates are more than 150 times more concentrated than gaseous methane.”

Many scientists believe the rapid warming caused by the volcanism of 251 million years ago generated a “methane burp” releasing these methane hydrates, literally poisoning the atmosphere while causing a global temperature spike. This was the coup de gras that annihilated up to 95% of all the species on our planet. It is the worst case scenario that our approaching climate chaos could generate.

Bill McKibben warns that we are wildly underestimating the amount of methane gas fracking pumps into the atmosphere. He cites a recent Harvard study showing that methane emissions in the U.S. increased by 30% between 2002 and 2014. The ROUGH GUIDE reports that although CH4 only stays in the atmosphere for 20 years (CO2 lasts 100 years), methane is dangerous because it is 25 times more efficient as a warming agent. Alarmingly, the Harvard study notes the “25 times” figure was based upon CO2’s life-span, not CH4’s. This led one Harvard researcher to conclude, “a more accurate figure… is between 86 and 105 times the potency of CO2 over the next decade or two.”

While the U.S. may have reduced CO2 emissions by switching from coal to fracked natural gas (which has half the CO2 emissions of coal), the methane that escapes during the fracking and transporting of natural gas actually increased our greenhouse gas footprint. Thus, we are poisoning the air and accelerating towards global warming tipping points that could cause a methane burp.

It is time to stop all fracking, everywhere, immediately, and for climate change activists to escalate their attacks against those who could kill us all with “safe, clean” natural gas.

P.S. It is also time for someone with more scientific knowledge than me to write a book about the environmental impact of methane to educate us more deeply about what is at stake.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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