Skip to main content

Why the Earth is farting

By Alan Weisman
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
A crater in the Yamal Peninsula, in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia.
A crater in the Yamal Peninsula, in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Russia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Recently, three mysterious craters were discovered in the Siberian permafrost
  • Alan Weisman: Hot summers caused Earth to spew methane, resulting in explosions
  • He says airborne methane is more potent in producing greenhouse effect
  • Weisman: Such stunning global flatulence is deadly if we don't embrace green energy

Editor's note: Alan Weisman is the author of "Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?" (Little, Brown and Co). He is also the author of "The World Without Us," a 2007 New York Times and international best-seller translated into 34 languages.

(CNN) -- Every day, you have a close personal encounter with methane, a key ingredient of something we don't usually mention in polite company: farts.

Perhaps that's why methane is also called "natural gas." Unfortunately, neither propriety nor intestinal discipline can suppress its unpleasantness lately, because now not just us, but the Earth itself is farting.

Recently, three new craters, one of which measured approximately 100 feet wide and over 200 feet deep, were discovered in the Siberian permafrost. The explanation for them is even more alarming than asteroid strikes: Apparently, after two consecutive summers averaging 5 degrees Celsius hotter than normal, frozen methane is not merely thawing, it's exploding. Scientists fear that, like chronic bad digestion, this phenomenon could be ongoing. Methane in the air surrounding these craters already measures 53,000 times the normal concentration.

Alan Weisman
Alan Weisman

Then, just a week into a research trip, a team from Stockholm University found "vast methane plumes" shooting from the sea floor off the Siberian coast. Columns of gas bubbles, they reported, were surfacing around their icebreaker in waters saturated with 10 to 50 times more methane than usual.

This was the marine equivalent of melting permafrost, the undoing of frozen crystals called methane hydrates, locked solid for millennia by the pressure and temperature of deep oceans.

The U.S. Office of Naval Research calculates that methane hydrates hold trillions of tons of hydrocarbons, from two to 10 times the amount as all conventional deposits of fossil fuels, but they're probably too costly or unsafe to harvest. Now, as ocean temperatures rise, they've begun collapsing, spewing as much gas skyward as the thawing tundra.

Mysterious crater baffles scientists

Airborne methane produces 86 times the heat-trapping greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide. Although CO2 remains in the atmosphere far longer, after 100 years methane is still 30 times more potent. With sea level increases from 3 to 6 feet already predicted by the century's end, such stunning global flatulence isn't merely embarrassing, but devastating for civilization.

So what do we do? First, we recognize that the reason this is happening involves a misleading term: positive feedback loop. It's misleading because for us there's nothing positive about it. It means that as temperatures rise, warming land and seas fart (belch, if you prefer) more methane -- which then warms things further, so dangerous eruptions accelerate. Feeding back on itself, warming begets more warming.

Second, we admit that this loop began with us. By now, the link between fuel that jet-propels our industrialized civilization and excess CO2 and methane in the atmosphere is challenged only by those who profit obscenely from it.

Third, we stop compounding the problem by ceasing to pretend that energy derived by shattering our bedrock to squeeze even more natural gas from it is somehow "clean." Not only does burning methane crank planetary heat higher, but fracking wells also inevitably leak. At least 2% of their methane output, the EPA conservatively estimates, seeps into the atmosphere, thickening the gas layer that's already turning Earth into a hothouse.

Nor will the other 98% go to heat our homes. Enormous pipelines are now proposed to transport fracked methane through New England's conservation lands and orchards, through northern Minnesota's prime tourism and wild rice lake districts, and across the Ogallala Aquifer-fed farms of our nation's heartland. Each will terminate at a port, where its gas will be exported, not used domestically.

What will remain is scarred land and the methane that escapes or explodes (most recently on June 26, in East Bernard, Texas, into 150-foot flames). Such pipelines will be subsidized by rate-payers, not by vastly wealthy corporations that own them -- unless we refuse to let them be built, and instead commit our energy funding henceforth to truly cleaner options, like wind and solar.

The last time there was this much atmospheric CO2 was 3 million years ago, when seas were 80 to 100 feet higher. Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric methane has more than doubled, and the amount now gushing from the seas alone is 34 times what we thought just seven years ago.

Until we stop putting more carbon dioxide and methane overhead, prepare for more rude farts to foul your air, and our future. With coastal cities, fertile deltas and much of the world's rice crops threatened by floods or salination from encroaching seas -- and with grain harvests predicted to fall 10% for each added 1 degree C of average temperature -- passing greenhouse gases isn't merely vulgar -- it's deadly.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT