It’s an awkward, yet necessary human function that happens to the best of us at the worst of times: flatulence.
Whether released in the privacy of your bathroom, or presented with gusto in a room full of your closest friends, there’s no denying that the human digestive system and our not-so-healthy diets combine forces to make us one gassy species.
If you think human flatulence stinks, however, this news is really going to wrinkle your nose.
Up until recently, our planet has kept its gas to itself, locked safely away in Arctic permafrost, the thick layer of soil just beneath the surface that remains frozen year round. Because Earth’s temperature has been steadily increasing over the past few decades, however, the frozen ground is melting, and the concentrated gas is bubbling to the surface in alarming amounts.
The gas now exploding through the Arctic shelf is methane that was originally deposited there through decomposition of organic matter in ancient wetlands.
Methane is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 times as potent over 20 years (Climate Progress).
If a significant amount of this formerly-frozen methane is released into the atmosphere, it could put in motion a positive feedback loop in which warming releases methane, causing further warming, which liberates even more of the gas.
In a recent press release, the National Science Foundation press release warned that “release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”
But the planet’s gassy problems don’t end with underground methane bubbles.
According to a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, thawing permafrost in eastern Greenland may be emitting large amounts of nitrous oxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas better known under it’s cuddly stage name — “laughing gas.”
The smile will probably fade from your face when you realize that nitrous oxide ranks as the third-most significant greenhouse gas generated by human activities, behind carbon dioxide and methane (see above!).
According to the EPA, nitrous oxide is about 310 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2 over a 100-year period.
The study suggests that nitrous oxide released by warming permafrost, which lies under roughly a quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere, could be a bigger contributor to climate change than previously thought.
Now, if you had a friend suffering from this kind of gas, you’d probably offer them a natural enzyme supplement or point them in the direction of your finest leafy green.
Unfortunately, the planet can’t reach for an over-the-counter remedy. We are the only ones who can bring it any relief, and it’s important that we act quickly.
Image Credit: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation