As a greenhouse gas with 86 times the heat trapping power of co2, methane is easily the most volatile substance we commonly use. Natural gas – ( CH4 ) – ( Methane ) has more potential than any other element, to exponentially exacerbate global warming and climate change.
While the world has zeroed in on co2 as a main driver of global warming, methane levels in the atmosphere have been climbing at a much faster rate than co2 over the last three decades, mostly due to increasing our extraction of natural gas. Combined, co2 and ch4 emissions present humanity’s greatest imminent threat and challenge. Please read on for our explanation and validation of this statement.
Natural vs anthropogenic climate change.
We are passengers on a vessel 8,000 miles in diameter that rotates with a surface speed of 1,000 mph as it hurtles through space at 67,000 miles per hr on an annual 584 million mile trip around the sun.
Planet Earth is also a rotor and stator, it has a solid core that spins faster than the outer portion. This dynamic action provides a magnetic force field that extends far out into space and shields the earth from the harshest ravages of nuclear radiation from the sun we orbit, as gravity keeps a very thin layer of atmosphere in place.
Our existence is explained by science, how a mass collided with the earth 4.5 Billion years ago, which set the dynamics in motion, setting the tone of the magnetosphere, the formation of the moon, how it’s gravitational pull helped separate and organize the surface chemistry and slight stirring of the oceans, creating atmosphere and weather patterns and in the process, giving the breath of life. The complexity of the cosmos, the physics and chemistry that came together to create life on planet earth is vast, we have learned a lot, and there’s a lot more to learn, but this much we know for sure :
The thin layer of atmosphere around our earth contains an extremely thin biosphere, a tiny film on the surface, in which all the life on earth exists, there is no other life in our solar system, perhaps even in our galaxy.
The livable zone on our planet is in the lower troposphere, within 5 miles above and below sea level, similar in scale to a 1 millimeter thick film covering a ball 1 meter in diameter.
The lower troposphere contains 90 % of the mass of the atmosphere, including all the weather and warmth. When we fly we are above the livable zone, temperatures and thin atmosphere at 40,000 ft resemble the thin surface atmosphere and temperature on mars (- 60 C.). The closer planet to us, Venus, has a much more dense surface atmosphere.
The surface temperature of Venus is 468 C, hot enough to melt lead. Atmospheric chemical make up and density equals planetary surface heat retention of solar radiation. For example, Mercury is much closer to the sun than Venus, though with no atmosphere, the average surface temperature of Mercury is 200 C cooler than Venus. Solar radiation and Albedo considered, Atmosphere dictates planetary surface temperature.
Among the animals living in our temperate biosphere we are unique, we share it with millions of other species, many with a purpose in nature greater than our own, but no other species has our communication abilities. We have pushed human ideals and developed technology at a pace that surely out-strides our own purpose on this planet. Our species has come to dangerously affect the health of the biosphere, threatening all life within it.
The biosphere is kept in very delicate temperature balance by the perfect amount of sunlight penetration and deflection, with atmospheric heat retention maintaining a very precise quantity of thermal mass in the oceans, forests and organisms on land, a very exact temperature to which the global climate systems and all current life has adapted.
As an example of how precise the livable temperature of the biosphere has to be, we know that when the global atmospheric temperature was 2 – 3 degrees warmer than now, large dinosaurs roamed around. When global temperature was 2 – 3 degrees cooler than now, all of Canada was under a sheet of ice 2 miles thick. Since then the climate has settled and life has thrived, but in very recent years, that has been changing.
Humans are creatures of the Pleistocene Epoch, which started about 2.6 million years ago. We humans came along 2.3 million years ago. since the Pleistocene Epoch ended 11,700 years ago, we have lived 0.5 % of our human existence outside the last ice age. The new era starting just a few hundred years ago, ( 0.01 % of human existence ) is being called the Anthropocene, the era of another major change of planet earth.
We have never played such an important roll in the health of our biosphere until this current tiny blink in time. In our 2.3 million year human history, it is us, every individual alive right now, deciding the fate of Humanity and all other life on earth. The seriousness and urgency of our situation can not be overstated.
We have already ensured a different life for our children than we have had, climate change is increasingly disrupting food production, global population is on track to go from 7.3 to 9.6 billion by 2050, a 30% increase in a generation. Our human challenges are rapidly growing and accelerating, while nature’s budget is going into steeper decline.
To understand how seriously our activity is affecting the health of the biosphere, we have to look way back in time, at things that have previously upset the delicate balance of nature. Everyone knows of the sudden KT extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, caused by an asteroid hitting the Yucatan. Catastrophic for dinosaurs, however life prevailed and eventually flourished and grew into our current utopia.
More important to understanding the danger of anthropogenic global warming, are the circumstances of an event that happened way further back in time, causing the Permian extinction some 250 million years ago.
Initiated by a lava flow over a period near Siberia, a global atmospheric build up of co2 slightly changed the balance of atmospheric chemistry, enhancing the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere, upsetting the balance of solar penetration and thermal rejection, triggering a positive feedback loop of solar gain causing the release of more greenhouse gas, and more severe and sudden heat retention. Though the initial changes in atmospheric chemical balance were very subtle, result was catastrophic, causing massive and rapid global biological die off.
The Permian extinction wiped out more than 95 % of all the life on earth, from large plants and animals down to bacteria, life that had evolved up to mid sized land animals and was as abundant as it is now. It is estimated the tipping point of runaway global warming at the time, was the initial increase of less than 3 degrees c. This three degree global average temperature change over an estimated thousand year period was an extremely rapid change in geological & evolutionary time period terms, evolutionary adaptation and global life survival was less than 5%
In the ensuing chaos of extreme weather and the geologic activity of the times, portions of biomass from the Permian extinction and much later KT extinction, were buried in sediment and eventually turned into what we now call fossil fuel resources, of coal, oil and natural gas.
These resources we extract by drilling, fracking, mountain top removal and massive open pit mining, to sell for profit and use unsparingly, as well as what we call ” proven reserves ” are just a fraction of the earth’s biological and chemical material held in stasis, which includes biomass frozen in permafrost, and methane clathrates at the bottom of the oceans, all frozen and locked in place by extreme climate change many millions of years ago.
Now as global atmospheric temperature rises due to the atmospheric heat capturing properties of co2, methane, and other emissions from our agricultural and fossil fuel burning activities, arctic sea ice and permafrost melts, thus more co2 and methane is released. Less sea ice means more heat is absorbed by the oceans, less reflected back out toward space. We don’t know exactly where the tipping point of unstoppable catastrophe is, but we do know it’s between 1 and 3 degrees and that we are creating the same extinction conditions of 250 million years ago, but doing it very, very many times faster.
In recent years we have consumed more of the earth’s natural resources than in all of human history prior to 1960, we have raised global atmospheric co2 levels from 280 parts per million before the industrial revolution to over 400 ppm, higher than any level found in the geological and ice record, which can be accurately determined 800,000 years into the past.
Global atmospheric co2 levels have risen from 300 ppm 60 years ago, to 350 in 1990, 367 in 2000, 387 in 2010, is now passing 400 ppm, the exponential rise on track for 500 ppm by 2022. It should be of great concern that a larger amount of our co2 output has been constantly absorbed by the oceans, showing a measurable rise of ocean acidity along with it’s own set of harmful effects. – And the global atmospheric temperature has already risen 1.5 degrees.
We can still go to a Rolling stones concert, consider that 75% of global atmospheric co2 level rise has occurred since Mick Jagger first sang “satisfaction”, a song about commercialism driving our desires to consume.
With 86 times the potency of co2 as a greenhouse gas, and with no accounting or a penalty on fugitive emissions, raw methane continues to be released in increasing quantity in the pursuit of natural gas, oil and coal, while the soot from burning this once ancient sunlight is being deposited on ice almost everywhere it exists, greatly speeding the melting process.
Ocean acidification is stressing all sea life and severely impacting zoo-plankton and corals, indicating the oceans are also pushed beyond their capacity to absorb co2, and the base of the food chain is in crisis. Considering that the oceans also produce the bulk of atmospheric oxygen – 50 – 85%, the effects can’t be understated. The warming is killing phytoplankton and trees, so they stop absorbing carbon, and release what they have stored. In Canada we see slightly warmer winters allowing pine beetles to move north, devastating forests previously protected by a short period of extreme cold, and forest fires are growing in size and frequency.
The most important thing we do is breathe, the absence of oxygen is the first most dangerous change inside a burning house, so it is with the troposphere.
The energy of the sun constantly streaming through the atmosphere to the exposed surface of the earth, is roughly equivalent to the energy of four man made thermonuclear bombs exploding per second. We are at a point where in our lifetime, triggering a global TOTAL EXTINCTION event requires only our inaction on reducing emissions causing climate change.
“Over billions of years on a unique sphere, chance has painted a thin covering of life – complex, improbable, wonderful and fragile. Suddenly we humans have grown in population, technology and intelligence to a position of terrible power : we now wield the paintbrush”
This is what we know about us.
What we can do
While such a choice sounds simple, we are force fed most of our choices and educated to desire all kinds of things contrary to such a goal. We are schooled to respect politics, religion, money and economic growth, ahead of the environment, and way beyond the realm of common sense.
It is important to understand the psychological barriers to changing the way we are doing things.
Humans make mistakes, but we hold on to the mistakes that have utility. We hold onto economic ideals with a tenacity that trumps all others, and as we be become more aware they are unsustainable, dissonance plays a growing roll in our decision making.
Stress affects all animal health, cognitive dissonance is an anti stress mechanism. We tend to accept unreasonable things, in an attempt to avoid a stressful reality.
The end of life can be a stress to the living, so faith can have natural health benefits. In the same way, climate change denial has benefits, though more financial than healthy. Denial and dissonance is supply and demand in a nutshell, apparently one difficult to crack.
Fossil fuel is ancient sunlight, energy from the sun combined with the chemistry of the atmosphere and soil, turned into biomass through photosynthesis, plants consumed by animals etc. Each time atmospheric chemistry was bumped out of balance the resulting climate change killed a large percentage of living organisms very rapidly, some was buried and turned into fossil. The picture above is of a wombat drill rig in Horse thief canyon near Drumheller, AB. where fossils of complete dinosaurs can be found on or just under the surface, buried by the sudden climate change weather of the KT extinction. Two to three thousand meters further below, are large pockets of liquid and gaseous fossil, oil and gas that is probably 250 million years old.
Direct use and capture of sunlight for energy should be obvious, it’s free. However, things that are obvious are perceived to be self promoting, like truth and reality, free energy, clean air and water, things we take for granted. In today’s competition for the financial utility of basically everything, free stuff and things we may take for granted do not get promoted, often conceding popularity to something we don’t need, or should not be doing.
“A lie will travel half way around the world before the truth can put it’s shoes on” – Mark Twain, friend of Nikola Tesla, the man who contributed more toward our current technological world than any other, but because he did not have capitalist ideals and wanted to give the world free energy, he was denied support and historical recognition.
Alberta has an abundance of fossil fuel that has been utilized to provide heat and electricity for our way of life. Coupled with our beef and fossil fuel exports to be consumed elsewhere, our per capita carbon contribution is in the stratosphere compared to most other people on earth. We have a rich lifestyle with an educated population and many economic resources beyond fossil fuel.
In essence, Albertans have more opportunity, potential, and capability than anyone else on the planet to change our negative global impact circumstances from atrocious, to a clean energy state with a positive economic future and lifestyle. We need only identify and confront our culture of greed and disregard, breathe in and protect our natural beauty by transforming our energy system and economy.
Some great alternatives to fossil fuels fail to be adopted and applied on a large scale, largely due to competition from the established financial utility of a fossil fuel infrastructure, which holds almost 100% of Alberta’s heating market, with alternatives at less than 1 %.
Imagine the paradigm shift in job creation and local spread of wealth with a large industry of small businesses that can all tap and utilize the vast and free energy of the sun, to an extent that actually trades places with the fossil energy economy.
Ultimately, individuals make and inspire change, so what can we do personally ?
The collection of direct sunlight has had gaining popularity in the conversion to electricity via photo-voltaic and solar thermal to steam. However, direct thermal capture and storage for heat is many times more efficient and cost effective, and something anyone can do, by methods ranging from hi-tech to very rudimentary. It should make obvious sense to tap into the vast supply of solar heat energy stored in the ground also, cavemen did it. This obvious and vast free energy resource has so far eluded popularity for a number of reasons.
At more than 5 times the dollar for dollar energy producing value of PV solar, Geothermal heating and cooling has enormous potential but struggles under gross industry miss-handling, ultimately trading short term profits for efficiency. The highest profit zone in the Canadian geoexchange industry, is the zone BETWEEN the heat pump manufacturer, and geothermal system installer. This zone is inhabited by heat pump distributors that do installer training, set up dealer networks and create entities like the Canadian Geoexchange coalition, who also write and influence curriculum for learning institutions. This zone also sees the price of the average heat pump go from a $ 2,500.00 average price from the manufacturer, to a $ 7,500.00 average price to the dealer / installer.
Maximum effort is put into promoting heat pump sales claiming efficiency, with little mention of the importance of SOURCE TEMPERATURE, in making those heat pumps efficient.
In order to sell ground source heat pumps as quickly as possible, most systems installed in Canada operate on a very shallow ground surface temperature medium, typically yielding 0 – 2 C , rather than a deeper earth temperature medium of 8 – 10 C. One type of earth exchange system operates on 5 times the volume of heat (energy) than the other. One will use 30 GJ of energy, the other 6 GJ, to do exactly the same job. This seems to remain a fact easily confused, glossed over, or kept quiet, ultimately to the detriment of geoexchange popularity as an alternative to gas heating.
There is also competition to overcome from fossil fuel heating industries, and even resistance from government and municipalities, the revenue stream from methane delivery is huge, much of it delivered to Alberta homes by the Alberta Trailer Company – ( ATCO ). The methane industry is also moving more into the production and delivery of our electricity. It should be noted that a project in Okotoks sponsored partially by ATCO has admirably set world records for energy efficiency through solar thermal capture and deep earth storage, coupled with a smaller amount of PV solar collection, achieving 100% efficiency, requiring no fossil fuel to heat and cool 52 homes.
We depend on the private sector for the supply and delivery of our essential utilities, our way of life is very much steered by corporate profit, often pushing environmental consideration much further down the ladder.
The result is an underwhelming adoption of a basic technology that has huge potential to reduce the ch4 and co2 emissions we put into the atmosphere with our choice to use methane as our primary source of home energy.
This is important, because the most an individual can do to reduce their environmental impact, is remove or reduce their own largest source of harmful emissions, for most Alberta families that would be home heating and cooling. Everyone lives in existing housing, almost all on natural gas. Without the confusion of the prices of each type of energy, or the environmental cost of production of natural gas VS coal, and which is the lesser of two evils used in the production of electricity, getting electricity from a power plant through an electrical grid is more efficient than burning gas for domestic heat. A geothermal system can then further reduce electrical requirement for heating and cooling by more than 80 %.
A properly installed geothermal system will heat and cool an average home with 6 GJ of electrical consumption, quite often using little or no more electricity than a home with gas heating and air source air conditioning. 6 GJ is also an amount easily generated by a 2 – 3 kw PV solar system. Just like ATCO’s Okotoks example, that’s net zero heating and cooling, for any existing Alberta home. The cost of a net zero heating retrofit would be in the range of 10 – 15 % of the current value of the home, while the asset value of a net zero retro-fitted home would increase by considerably more.
Put in perspective, the average home uses 120 GJ of natural gas – equivalent to 3,600 liters of gasoline. There are more than 1.4 million private dwellings in Alberta. A million average homes burn the equivalent of 3,600,000,000 liters of gasoline for heat, per year.
This number would reduce from Three Billion, six hundred million, down to One hundred and eighty million liters of gasoline equivalent, if geothermal heating and cooling were used instead of natural gas. Then roof mounted PV solar can easily supply enough electricity for geothermal heating and cooling, bringing it down to zero.
How we perceive energy as an economic resource with little regard for the environment, needs immediate and very serious review, favoring the reduction of fossil fuel production and consumption, with environmentally sustainable solutions for our energy needs.
Albertans have enormous potential to set the tone for a sustainable future if we choose courage over dissonance, and we are fortunate to have the freedom and capacity to do so.