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Cow Farts and Manure Mean 50% More Methane in the Air than we Thought

Cow Farts and Manure Mean 50% More Methane in the Air than we Thought

When it comes to the amount of methane being pumped into our atmosphere, a new analysis says that the EPA has got its estimates wrong and, thanks to fossil fuels and factory farming, the figure could in fact be significantly higher.

The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and authored by 15 leading climate change scientists, took a unique look at methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of using the EPA’s method of collecting data at sources such as outside factory farms and power plants, it instead used sensors on planes and tall towers to measure the level of emissions in the wider atmosphere.

“When we measure methane gas at the atmospheric level,” Harvard professor Steven Wofsy, one of the study’s co-authors, is quoted as saying, “we’re seeing the cumulative effect of emissions that are happening at the surface across a very large region. That includes the sources that were part of the bottom-up inventories, but maybe also things they didn’t think to measure.”

What they found was that their method, which represents one of the most comprehensive studies of greenhouse gasses the United States has seen, showed that the country is pumping out potentially 50% more methane than is currently recorded by government estimates. This would serve to essentially cancel out progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions achieved to date.

That’s because, while CO2 is often the greenhouse gas to earn column inches, methane is among a handful of gasses that are about 21 times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere. The EPA has previously estimated that there are about 32 million tons of methane in the atmosphere, while European agencies have estimated about 29 million tons. Under the new measure, methane levels may be as high as 50 million tons and the obvious conclusion of that is that the lengths we will need to go reduce those damaging gasses will likely have to be much greater.

This follows research by Canadian and Dutch scientists that found standard models for assessing methane production are not appropriate for generating accurate predictions of atmospheric methane or greenhouse gas levels.

“Something is very much off in the inventories,” study co-author Anna Michalak, an Earth scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, is quoted as saying. “The total US impact on the world’s energy budget is different than we thought, and it’s worse.”

The Independent reports the study has been praised by experts in the field who were not involved in the analysis, with Robert Howarth of Cornell University quoted as saying the results are “very compelling and quite important,” while Britton Stephens of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado is reported as saying, “The atmosphere is this great integrator that records the sum of all emissions. The great thing about it is it doesn’t lie, it doesn’t make mistakes.”

Three states, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, produce almost one quarter of the United State’s total methane output due to their being centers of fuel production and farming. In particular, cow flatulence and manure have been pegged as one of the central causes of methane because as part of factory farming conditions, manure is often collected into lagoons before being processed, creating ideal conditions for methane release. The world over, it is estimated that livestock and animal husbandry accounts for 18% of all emitted greenhouse gases.

The researchers stress that this study should not necessarily be used to undercut a push for using natural gas as an intermediate between fossil fuels and greener fuels, as some have suggested. Instead, they believe the research is crucial for the fight against greenhouse gas emissions because progress can only be made in any meaningful way if we have accurate estimates of the problem — something that, until now, we appear to have been missing.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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73 comments

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3:45AM PDT on Aug 31, 2014

thanks for sharing

3:22AM PST on Dec 11, 2013

What are we going to do? Do away with every living animal? They ALL pass gas!

11:26AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

Tricia H.. How many cows have you seen eating meat? I have been around cows much of my life as a child and young adult and with regularity the rest of my adult life... They are one of the purest vegetarians outside of sheep and goats that we have. Where do you come up with these silly notions?

I primarily post to make a feeble attempt to enlighten some that are so terribly misinformed... Of course in some cases it is a battle that was lost long ago.. It is only possible when you respect the source of the information being given. Doesn't mean you should trust it.!!! Ask any pilot who developes a major fuel leak and his flow meter says he has plenty of fuel but his trim and gas gauge doesn't agree.. Which do you trust?

8:25AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

Matt, I hate to break it to you but vegans produce methane too.
I guess the cows could be corked and we could fart into bottles and recycle the methane for useful purposes but the essence of the problem is overpopulation and the excuses promoted by industry as diversions. Do we really think dinosaurs didn't fart? Maybe that's really why they became extinct.

8:22AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

They have to fart methane if the are eating food that they shouldn't be eating just like humans. If they are eating just vegetation there shouldn't be a problem. Someone has to be feeding them meat which does not agree with their digestive systems.

7:20AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

Cows produce methane because of digesting vegetation . If ,as some propose, humans eliminate cattle and become vegan, human farts will produce methane for the same reason. What more evidence do we need to show that there are TOO MANY PEOPLE.

4:39AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

I agree with Lilliana, it's just an attempt to distract from bigger fish...

4:34AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

As an interestign side note talk to anyone in the space program or Airforce flying wings and you will also get up to speed on gas and the need to control what you eat. Before pressuraization the crews had to be very careful.. Gas at 30,000 can be deadly. Many of our crews had to be at maximium alert.. not double over from abdominal pain. Some are so ludicrouos with their posts so conviced they know facts that they gardered off social or the internet.. Makes me wonder how is man kind going to progress if so many are so gulliable..

4:30AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

Matt P.. Apparantly I spent 4 years becming an R.N. and 40+ years being one for nothing? How many G.I. specialists have you worked with..? Do you even have a clue how digestion works? It isn't only mechanical.. How do you think energy is created from what living creatures eat. There is a chemical process involved also.. Guess what happens then ? You truly should do some serious research before making such wild claims in a public forum... As convinced as you may personally feel your veiws don't hold water to science or facts of life at all levels. Why do people need to eat live yogurt? duh .. Let me know if you would like some books on the subject.. I don't need mine anymore..

12:42AM PST on Dec 4, 2013

Michael T., the average human produces .47 - 1.49 l of methane per day; the average cow produces 100 - 200 l of methane per day. And guess what the more vegetable matter consumed by humans the more methane produced, you know like beans, cabbage.... The fact is that the bacteria in Herbivore digestive tracts produce the methane in the process of turning cellulose in to food, which no carnivore or omnivore has in their digestive tract. And guess what decomposing vegetable matter pre or post digestion creates more methane than decomposing animal carcasses pre or post digestion. So Vegans produce more methane eating plants than humans do eating animals.

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