The Methane Conundrum
FII is targeting methane emission reduction. It happens that nutrient impaired freshwater is the single largest source of methane emissions occurring today…about 2.5 times more methane comes off eutrophic water than all of the methane released by the Oil and Gas industry
As CEO of an environmental service company that works with water, I am responsible for managing Floating Island International’s (FII) health. Essentially, my primary job is to keep FII out of the weeds. The company offers solutions around a range of water quality parameters including:
It happens that nutrient impaired freshwater is the single largest source of methane emissions occurring today…about 2.5 times more methane comes off eutrophic water than all of the methane released by the Oil and Gas industry, according to researchers at Yale University. Yet methane emissions from nutrient-impaired water is not talked about within 99% of the environmental community today. This lack of awareness is strangely mirrored in the storyline in “Don’t Look Up,” a recent Netflix movie. Yet, I guess I’m hopeful. Perhaps “Don’t Look Up” will change our behavior. Perhaps we will look up, and we will look down, below the surface of water.
I don’t for a moment suggest that this silence around nutrient impaired freshwater and its contribution to total methane emissions is a government conspiracy. No, it’s because the scientific data are new. The first research papers came out around 2015. It will take time but there will be “ink” on the subject in today’s social media formats, eventually.
Last year saw a massive spill of nutrients from Florida’s phosphate mining region into the ocean off Florida’s west coast known as the Piney Point spill. The nutrients fed an algae bloom that resulted in high TSS (total suspended solids) and corresponding cloudy, turbid water, which in turn prevented sunlight from a huge expanse of eel grass, upon which the Florida manatee population feeds. About 30% of the Florida manatee population is now dead. They starved. Across the United States in 2021 there were thousands of freshwater lakes and ponds that experienced algae blooms. Beyond visual/aesthetic impairment, the blooms eventually died and sank to the bottom, becoming fodder for microbes that eat organics. Then, as the blooms decompose, dissolved oxygen in the water is consumed. When it’s gone, typically for about three months at a time, twice a year, in spring and fall, the resulting oxygen consumption engenders anaerobes, which include microbes that emit methane instead of carbon dioxide. Bear in mind methane is 21 times more impactful relative to climate change than carbon dioxide.
Think of it this way, for perspective: harmful algae blooms, as well as blooms of other annual forms of aquatic vegetation, ultimately die off. When they do, ubiquitous microbes use up oxygen in the water. Note that warm water cannot contain much oxygen…far less than cool or cold water. The result…anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions that result in methane emissions instead of basic carbon dioxide.
For example, a reservoir in Montana, a headwater state where water quality should, theoretically, be impeccable, generates well over 10,000 tons of methane annually.
This phenomenon is repeated thousands of times across North America, from Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba to Clear Lake, in California, to several hundred lakes in Minnesota, to Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie, and numerous drinking water reservoirs along our continent’s east coast.
This cycle is growing. It’s expanding with climate change. And it’s contributing to the climate change cycle at a ferocious rate. Yet, it is a low hanging fruit in terms of climate action. It is almost entirely preventable.
The hyper-irony here is that with basic stewardship, the nutrients that result in harmful algae blooms can be cycled into forage fish and other appropriate biota, which when combined with harvest can trigger incredible water productivity. Eutrophic water can become Transition Water, a truly sustainable and worthy goal!
Here at Shepherd we have a research lake. It’s only 55 acre feet of water - imagine 55 football fields one-foot deep - yet it is the most productive fishery in Montana, by far. In one instance, ten kids, some of whom never fished before, caught 634 fish in four hours. Fish of various age classes and weight, colorful, and healthy.
Fish Fry Lake is the research lake in question, and it lives up to its name. It’s where we have learned how to grow fish instead of algae, or any other monoculture of plant life. We simply steward the lake per nature’s model. We employ biomimicry to fix the nutrient loading that otherwise results in methane. Nature as model is the solution. It’s not about chemicals. It’s not about massive expense and overwhelming budgets. It is about noticing how nature’s wetland effect can be leveraged, about how we can support and sometimes even enhance nature’s methods. We design for the limiting variables required by nature to cycle nutrients and literally every other pollution parameter of concern into and through natural food webs.
Today we can purposively oxygenate the bottom of lakes. This is where the methane will otherwise occur. We can prevent the methane. We can energize every lake’s food web, and cycle the nutrients that otherwise become harmful algae into beneficial life.
What needs to happen to bring this about at scale?
1. A revision of human perspective around harvest. The conservation ethic we’ve assumed over the last generation needs to be refined. When eutrophic (nutrient rich) water is involved, about half the time across lakes in North America, harvest of nutrients is required. It’s fundamental. Fish are the single best way to cycle nutrients out of water. We must propagate and harvest fish, just like the kids who caught 634 fish over the space of four hours, we must purposively harvest biota from nutrient impaired water. Catch and release is dysfunctional in eutrophic water, and will result in methane.
2. Oxygenation of lakes. Today a breakthrough technology referred to as “nanobubbles and micro bubbles” provides an ability to prevent anaerobic (without oxygen) status on the bottom of lakes. We can now prevent methane. Bear in mind that nutrient impaired water is the single largest source of methane occurring on the planet currently. Think of the melting tundra. Nutrient impaired water is essentially the same biologic phenomenon that generated the biogas inventoried under the frozen tundra, except the biogas from nutrient impaired water occurs over a far greater expanse than the arctic, and it’s occurring NOW!
3. Agriculture must recreate itself. Fertilizer is deadly. Nature has modeled the appropriate nutrient ratio…106 carbon, 16 nitrogen, and 1 phosphorus molecule per living cell. This is nature’s model…we call it the Redfield ratio. And agriculture, particularly soil scientist and the people, the farmers, they advise, must be reminded of this. Hyper productivity is the lure that has caused agriculture to operate well outside of this ratio. Our perspective must be revised.
4. There’s just one more action item. It will be the driver that actually impacts effective climate action. We must attach a value to every ton of methane that is prevented. If a ton of carbon dioxide prevention is worth a credit of $100, then a methane credit for prevention of a ton of methane should be valued at 21 times this $100/ton valuation. See EPA's methane pageelimnology.com/. There must be independent third party verification, proof, and the data must be empiric. ISO standards must be developed for methane prevention, and quickly. With a serious financial motive, capitalism will respond. And “YES”, the technology to do this in real time is at hand.
It’s Do-Or-Die folks. We don’t have time for silly theatrics. Climate change is here, but we can mitigate it. We truly can.
There’s a Climate Change Policy development group in the White House. Let them know that time is wasting. They must act now, on a truly bipartisan basis, with an actual methane credit. Some 40% of Americans were directly impacted by climate disasters in 2021. Think massive fires, tornados, harmful algae blooms. Some 80% of us experienced abnormal heat waves last summer. The reality is that today, many of us are “looking up” and methane is the low hanging fruit.
What can you do right now?
There are several things. For example, copy this short post and share it on your social media.
If you manage “water”, you can start tracking methane emissions. Get in touch, and we will prep you with an actual monitoring system that tracks and verifies your waterway’s current emission status. This sets the stage for your water to earn methane credits. While we can’t predict exactly “when” methane credits will happen, we can state that they “MUST” happen, if the world truly is willing to keep climate change at bay.
Contact the White House’s Climate Policy office and tell them how important you believe it is, for the health of water and our atmosphere, to implement methane credits ASAP. https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/
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