Major U.S. cities are leaking methane at twice the rate previously believed

Science | AAAS | 7/19/2019 | Staff
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Natural gas, long touted as a cleaner burning alternative to coal, has a leakage problem. A new study has found that leaks of methane, the main ingredient in natural gas and itself a potent greenhouse gas, are twice as big as official tallies suggest in major cities along the U.S. eastern seaboard. The study suggests many of these fugitive leaks come from homes and businesses—and could represent a far bigger problem than leaks from the industrial extraction of the fossil fuel.

“This is an issue that people tend to ignore when trying to estimate methane emissions,” says Kathryn McKain, an atmospheric scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, who wasn’t involved in the new research. When compared with the global amount of natural and human-driven methane emissions, she notes, “These emissions are small, but they’re preventable.”

Heat - Power - Methane - Emits - Carbon

When burned for heat or power, methane emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) than fossil fuels such as coal. But when leaked directly into the atmosphere, its warming effect can be dozens of times stronger than CO2, depending on the time scale over which the warming is measured.

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The new findings come courtesy of data gathered by aircraft over six U.S. cities: Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New York City; Providence; and Boston. In 2018, researchers flew at altitudes between 300 and 800 meters and measured concentrations of methane, ethane, CO2, and carbon monoxide, among other gases.

Ethane - Measurements - Clues - Sources - Methane

The ethane measurements were clues to likely sources of the methane leaks, says Eric Kort, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and co-author of the new study. There aren’t any large natural sources of ethane, but it does appear in small amounts in the...
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