By CHRISTINA LARSON, AP Science Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The release of methane from damaged Nord Stream pipelines that run between Russia and Europe is likely to cause the largest known gas leak in a short period of time and highlight the problem of large methane leaks in other parts of the world. say the scientists.
There is still uncertainty in estimating the total damage, but the researchers say large plumes of this potent greenhouse gas will have a significant detrimental impact on climate.
There will also be immediate harm to marine life and fisheries in the Baltic Sea and to human health because benzene and other trace chemicals are often present in natural gas, the researchers say.
“This will probably be the largest gas leak in history, in terms of its rate,” said Rob Jackson, a climatologist at Stanford University.
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The speed of gas spurting from four documented pipeline leaks, which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has blamed on sabotage, is part of what makes the impacts severe.
When methane naturally escapes from vents on the ocean floor, the amounts are usually small and the gas is mostly absorbed by seawater. “But this is not a normal situation for gas release,” Jackson said. “We’re not talking about methane bubbling up to the surface like mineral water, but a plume of gas,” she said.
Jackson and other scientists estimate that between 50% and almost 100% of the total methane emitted by the pipeline will reach the atmosphere.
The Danish government issued a worst-case scenario assuming all the gas got into the air, and German authorities on Thursday issued a somewhat lower one.
Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible for anyone to get close to the highly flammable plume to try to stem the release of gas, which energy experts estimate could continue into Sunday.
“Methane is very flammable; if you go in there, it’s very likely to be a funeral pyre,” said Ira Leifer, an atmospheric scientist. If the gas-air mixture was within a certain range, an aircraft could easily ignite traveling into the plume, for example.
Methane is not the only risk. “Natural gas is not refined to be super clean; there are trace elements of other compounds, like benzene,” a carcinogen, Leifer said.
“The amount of these trace elements that are cumulatively entering the environment is significant right now; this will cause problems for fisheries and marine ecosystems and the people who potentially eat those fish,” he said.
David Archer, a professor in the department of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago who focuses on the global carbon cycle, said the methane escape into the Baltic Sea is part of the much larger global problem of methane emissions.
The gas is a major contributor to climate change, responsible for a significant part of the climate disruption that people are already experiencing. This is because it is 82.5 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at absorbing heat from the sun and warming the Earth in the short term.
Climate scientists have found that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are much worse than what companies are reporting, despite claims by major companies that they have reduced their emissions.
Scientists measuring methane from satellites in space have found that emissions from oil and gas operations are often at least twice what companies reported, said Thomas Lauvaux, a climate scientist at the University of Reims in France. .
Many of those alleged leaks are not accidental. Companies release the gas during routine maintenance. Lauvaux and other scientists observed more than 1,500 large methane leaks around the world, and potentially tens of thousands of smaller leaks, using satellites, he said.
AP reporters Patrick Whittle contributed from Portland, Maine, Seth Borenstein from Washington, DC, and Cathy Bussewitz from New York.
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