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A massive, months-long natural gas leak continues to spew methane into the atmosphere in California, causing thousands of residents to fall ill and prompting California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in early January.

Shocking study shows how much methane leaked globally


Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Monday, January 18, 2016, 4:10 PM - A massive, months-long natural gas leak continues to spew methane into the atmosphere in California, causing thousands of residents to fall ill and prompting California Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in early January. 

But while California is front and centre right now, a study shows how some of the globe's biggest countries are also to blame for these troubling leaks.

Currently, 110,000 pounds of natural gas are hitting the atmosphere each hour from the California leak, resulting in the relocation of 2,200 households, International Business Times (IBT) reports. An additional 2,600 households may need to be relocated to avoid long-term health risks.

The Environmental Defense Fund estimates the environmental toll of the leak is equivalent to the emissions of seven million cars per day, prompting to experts to call the leak the worst environmental disaster in the U.S. since the BP oil spill.

Nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and dizzy spells have been reported by residents who have inhaled the toxic fumes.

While the spill has been the subject of international headlines, a new study reveals California's methane gas leak isn't the only, or the largest, one to impact the environment in recent years.

In 2012, a chimney used to burn off excess natural gas at oil wells and energy sites created the largest gas flare on the planet.

Located in Punta de Mata, Venezuela, the flare burned up about 768,000 metric tonnes of natural gas, close to 10 times what's been leaked into the atmosphere in California, National Geographic reports.

The findings are documented in a new study put together by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S.

Scientists used high-tech cameras and satellites to capture gas flares that occurred globally in 2012, and the results are alarming:



The study's authors estimate 143 billion cubic metres of gas flared globally in 2012, roughly 3.5 per cent of total production for the year.

Flaring is a waste disposal process and there is no "systemic reporting" of flaring locations and gas volumes, the paper notes.

Satellites located more than 7,000 flare sites. Russia flared the largest volume of gas at 25 billion cubic metres. While Canada's flares were smaller in volume, the country had 332 flares in 2012, the third-highest in the world behind the U.S. (2,399) and Russia (1053).

What is methane?

Methane is the predominant element in natural gas and is among the most prevalent greenhouse gases emitted in North America arising from human activity. It is also emitted by natural sources.

While it doesn't remain in the atmosphere as long as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), it is much more efficient at trapping heat than CO2, making it a large contributor to climate change. 

Flaring methane the is process of burning it off, which converts it to CO2 and water vapour. This has a lower impact, but still contributes to the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus contributing to climate change. Also, if a flaring site is not carefully monitored, some of the methane can escape without being burned.

What is climate change?

When scientists refer to 'climate change', they're talking about a change in climatic norms.

In other words, warm climates could get even warmer and drier, or they could get colder and wetter.

While this occurs naturally, scientists say humans play a role as well.

Here's an explanation from The Weather Network's Chris St. Clair:

With files from Scott Sutherland.

SOURCES: National Geographic | Energies

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