It’s A Trap!

Late morning, no-one else in his coffee shop so Al pulls up a chair. “OK, Susan, so coal’s a mess for ash and air pollution but also each carbon from coal gives us less energy than a carbon from methane. So why the muttering against switching to natural gas?”

“Big-ticket reasons, Al. One, natural gas isn’t pure methane. Mostly methane, sure, but depending on the source you get a whole collection of other things in the mix — heavier hydrocarbons like propane and butane, stinky sulfides and amines, even helium and mercury. Gas from a well has to be purified before you’d want it piped to your house.”

“Piped. Oh, yeah, pipelines. Probably a lot more efficient than coal transport but I see how they get problems, too.”

“Indeed they do. Pipelines break and leak and some idiots even use them for target practice. The worst kind of waste.”

“Yeah, when the oil gets out and ruins the land or someone’s water supply.”

“That’s bad locally, all right, but it’s when methane leaks out that the global damage starts.”


“Mm-hm, because methane’s a gas and mixes in with the rest of the atmosphere. If a pipeline or a truck or anything springs a leak in, say, Chicago, the methane molecules can go anywhere.”


“So a couple of things. A decade in the atmosphere oxidizes most methane molecules to, guess what, CO2, the same problematic CO2 we get from burning coal. But before it degrades, methane’s an even bigger heat‑trapper than CO2 is.”

“Whaddaya mean, heat‑trapper?”

“Do you want to take this, Sy? It’s more Physics than Chemistry and besides, my mocha latte’s getting cold.”

“Hmm, there’s a bunch of moving parts in this. Al, you owe Susan a warm-up while I think.”

“Here ya go, Susan.”

“Thanks, Al. I’ll get you guys started. Why did my coffee get cold?”

“Good one, Susan. Al, it’s a universal principle — left to itself, energy spreads out. Heat finds ways to travel from a concentrated, high‑temperature source to low‑temperature absorbers. The exceptions occur when some extra process expends energy to pump heat in the other direction. So, that coffee naturally lost heat to the table by conduction, to the air by convection and to the general environment by radiation. The only thing that can stop those processes is perfect insulation. That’s the thing about the atmosphere.”

“Whoa, that’s a jump or three too fast.”

“OK, let’s follow a sunbeam aimed in the Earth’s direction. Its photons carry a wide range of energies, ultraviolet down to far infrared. On the way in, a UV photon hits an atmospheric ozone molecule and gets absorbed. No more UV photon but now the molecule is in an excited state. It calms down by joggling its neighbor molecules, that’s heat transfer, and maybe emitting a longer wavelength photon or two. Ozone filters out incoming UV and in the process spreads out the photon’s concentrated energy. What’s left in the sunbeam is visible and infrared light that gets down to us. You with me?”

“Makes sense so far.”

“Good. Next stage is that the visible and IR light heat the Earth, which then re-radiates the energy as infrared light mostly at longer wavelengths. The problem is that not all the IR gets out. Water molecules absorb some wavelengths in that range. Every absorption event means more heat distribution into the atmosphere when the molecule relaxes. Ocean evaporation maintains a huge number of IR‑blocking water molecules in the atmosphere.”

“I heard that ‘some‘ weasel‑word. Other wavelengths still make it through, right?”

I unholster Old Reliable, tap a few keys. “Here’s water’s absorption pattern in the mid‑to‑far‑infrared. A high peak means absorption centered at that wavelength. This is scaled per molecule per unit area, so double the molecules gives you double the absorption.”

Spectrum profiles from M. Etminan, et al., doi:10.1002/2016GL071930

“Lots of blank space between the peaks, though.”

“Which is where CO2 and methane get into the game. It’s like putting green and blue filters in front of a red one. With enough of those insulating molecules up there there’s no blank space and lots of imbalance from trapped heat.”

“Methane’s worse.”

“Lots worse.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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