Methane escaping from the damaged Nord Stream pipelines that run between Russia and Europe is likely to lead to the largest known gas leak to occur in a short time, highlighting the problem of large methane escapes elsewhere in the world, scientists say.
There is still uncertainty in estimating total damage, but researchers say huge plumes of this potent greenhouse gas will have significant adverse effects on the climate.
Immediate damage to marine life and fisheries in the Baltic Sea as well as to human health will also result, as benzene and other trace chemicals are typically present in natural gas, researchers say.
“This will probably be the biggest gas leak ever, in terms of speed,” said climate scientist Rob Jackson of Stanford University.
The speed of gas released from four documented leaks in the pipelines — which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has attributed to sabotage — is part of what makes the consequences serious.
When methane leaks naturally from vents on the ocean floor, the amounts are usually small and the gas is largely absorbed by seawater. “But this is not a normal situation for a gas release,” Jackson said. “We’re not talking about methane bubbling to the surface like seltzer water, but a plume of flowing gas,” he said.
Jackson and other scientists estimate that between 50% and nearly 100% of the total methane emitted by the pipeline will reach the atmosphere.
The Danish government issued a worst-case scenario assuming all the gas reached the air, and German officials issued a slightly lower scenario on Thursday.
In the meantime, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to approach the highly flammable plume to attempt to curb the release of gas, which could take until Sunday, according to energy experts.
“Methane is highly flammable — if you go in there, there’s a good chance it’s a pyre,” said Ira Leifer, an atmospheric scientist. For example, if the gas-air mixture was within a certain range, an aircraft could easily ignite as it entered the plume.
Methane is not the only risk. “Natural gas isn’t refined to be super clean — there are trace elements of other compounds, such as benzene,” a carcinogen, Leifer said.
“The amount of these trace elements that are cumulatively released into the environment right now is significant — this will cause problems for fisheries and marine ecosystems and for people who may be eating these fish,” he said.
David Archer, a professor in the department of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago who focuses on the global carbon cycle, said methane escapes into the Baltic Sea are part of the much larger global problem of methane emissions.
The gas is a major contributor to climate change and is responsible for a significant portion of the climate disruption that people are already experiencing. That’s because in the short term, it’s 82.5 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the Earth.
Climate scientists have found that the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions are far worse than what companies are reporting, despite claims by major companies that they have reduced their emissions.
Scientists measuring methane from satellites in space have found that emissions from oil and gas activities are usually at least twice what the companies reported, said Thomas Lauvaux, a climate scientist at the University of Reims in France.
Many of those so-called leaks are not accidental. Companies release the gas during routine maintenance. Lauvaux and other scientists observed more than 1,500 large methane leaks worldwide, and possibly tens of thousands of smaller leaks, using satellites, he said.
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