Monday, February 13, 2012

Methane Poses Great Danger to Humans

My students in an Embry-Riddle writing class selected pollution as a topic for their weekly essays.  It’s a good choice, given the immense harm pollution is already causing to air and water.

Much of it is well known: damage to the ozone layer caused by fluorocarbons and carbon dioxide emissions; damage to fresh water through plastic and industrial discharges.  The supply of fresh water is already running low.  There are many other examples as well, including health problems associated with smog and particles in the air; acid rain and genetic damage from pesticides and herbicides.

One type of pollutant, however, rarely gets mentioned, but represents the most deadly natural danger facing mankind.  Don’t think about the supposed end of the world in 2012.  This pollutant is silent and deadly, and will not be introduced by angels blowing trumpets or by the return of Jesus.

It’s called methane.

On a modest level, methane is not dangerous.  It’s everywhere anyway.  When you sniff “rotten eggs,” you are smelling a mixture of hydrogen sulfide and methane.  The danger comes when methane in volume replaces oxygen.  You don’t need methane to breathe, but you do need oxygen.  About 18 percent of what you breathe has to be oxygen for you to survive.  When oxygen levels fall below 10 percent, people die.

Natural gas is one source of methane.  About 97 percent of it is methane.  Proper ventilation is needed to be safe from its effect because burning natural gas leads to a byproduct called carbon monoxide.  It can be deadly.  “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that carbon monoxide poisoning kills 500 people each year,” according to, a website devoted to healthy lifestyles.

However,, like most sites on this topic, missed the most significant danger from methane, one that could end all life on this planet and may have been involved with at least one huge extinction in the past.

Huge amounts of methane exist in frozen form on the ocean floor. A professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) has proposed that methane escaping during past global warming helped heat up the Earth.  James Kennett also suggested that “past shifts from glacial to interglacial periods were caused by a massive decomposition of the marine methane hydrate deposits.”

This theory proposes that “warmer ocean temperatures from current global climate change” will cause methane to be released again.   Today, microbes dine on the methane, reducing its impact on the Earth.  However, massive climate change would overwhelm the little critters, leading to widespread methane infusion into the atmosphere and, possible, asphyxiation.

Some of the methane has already started to appear as the impact of global warming increases.  Scientists already documented a “massive blowout” off the coast of California in 2006.  The resulting plume was absorbed into the atmosphere, according to a UCSB announcement.  Then, in 2009, scientists detected 250 plumes of methane gas “bubbling up” north of Norway in the Svalbard archipelago.

Overall, scientists estimate that “around 500 to 600 megatons of methane are released into the atmosphere each year."
The impact is small now, and some scientists have pooh-poohed the idea that the methane can be dangerous.  For example, during the spring BP oil spill in the Gulf, some researchers insisted the resulting methane could create a catastrophic situation.  Nothing of the sort happened.
Nevertheless, the danger has already been demonstrated.   The mass extinction that occurred about 250 million years ago and allowed dinosaurs to eventually take over has been linked atmospheric changes and loss of oxygen in the ocean because of increased methane.

It was a slow process then, taking centuries to strangle much of life.  Things are likely to go faster these days, now that humans are generating global warming.  As oceans heat up, the frozen methane sealed in great depths will start to rise.

Then, it will be too late to write anything.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  Many of his essays are posted at also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

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