Super-Emitters and Methane Bombs: New Data Reveals Grave Threat to Climate Targets

More than 1,000 “super-emitter” sites released significant amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere in 2022, according to new data. These sites mostly come from oil and gas facilities, and one of the worst single leaks was equivalent to the rate of emissions from 67 million running cars. The data also revealed 55 “methane bombs” located around the world, including fossil fuel extraction sites where future gas leaks could release methane equivalent to 30 years of US greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is one of the primary drivers of global heating and is responsible for 25% of global warming today.

Scientists are calling this increase in methane levels “scary” and warn that it poses the biggest threat to keeping global heating below the 1.5C target set by the Paris Agreement. Methane acceleration may trigger catastrophic climate tipping points that could be disastrous for humanity. To prevent this, researchers are identifying the sites that are most critical in preventing methane-driven disasters. They suggest that tackling leaks from fossil fuel sites is the quickest and cheapest way to reduce methane emissions.

Methane plumes streaming westward for more than 20 miles east of Hazar, Turkmenistan. Photograph: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/AFP/Getty Images
Methane plumes streamed westward for more than 20 miles east of Hazar, Turkmenistan. Photograph: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/AFP/Getty Images


The intentional venting of unwanted gas released from underground drilling is one source of methane leaks, while poorly regulated equipment also causes some accidental leaks. Addressing these leaks immediately would significantly reduce global heating since methane is short-lived in the atmosphere. Cutting methane emissions by 45% by 2030, which the United Nations says is feasible, would prevent a 0.3C temperature rise. This means that methane emissions pose a grave threat to humanity, but also present an opportunity to decisively act on the climate crisis.

The “super-emitter” sites were detected by analyzing satellite data. The United States, Russia, and Turkmenistan were responsible for the highest number of methane emissions from fossil fuel facilities. The biggest event was a leak of 427 tonnes an hour in August, near Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast and a major pipeline. That single leak was equivalent to the rate of emissions from 67 million cars or the hourly national emissions of France.

Future methane emissions from fossil fuel sites, known as “methane bombs,” are also expected to be substantial. They threaten the global “carbon budget” limit required to keep heating below 1.5C. More than half of these fields are already in production, including the three biggest methane bombs, which are all in North America. Reducing methane emissions is one of the few options available to stay below the 1.5C target, as exceeding that level even temporarily could trigger irreversible effects from climate tipping points.

Methane is a double-edged sword as a greenhouse gas. It traps 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide but fades from the atmosphere in about a decade, much faster than CO2’s century-long lifespan. In 2021, methane levels reached 1,908 parts per billion, which is 2.6 times higher than before human activity began to transform the atmosphere. Its role in global heating is often overlooked, but human-caused methane emissions are responsible for around one-third of the global temperature rise seen over the last century.

Recent increases in annual methane emissions are speeding up, and the highest growth rates have been observed since 2020. Microbes that decompose organic matter, such as those in wetlands and livestock’s stomachs, are the primary drivers of this recent surge. Rising global temperatures enable microbes to produce more methane, causing more global heating, and creating a vicious cycle. Researchers warn that this is a feedback effect, and it’s scary in many ways, and methane needs to be brought under control immediately.


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