Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Song of CH4

A short story written for an Atmospheric Chemistry assignment which I thought is relevant and potentially interesting to share with all of you.

The Song of C-H-4
A short story by the Rambling Leaf Monkey

My name is Methane but you can call me CH4. I used to live in North Siberia but not anymore. In case you don’t know, that’s in the Northern Hemisphere where there are lots of frozen lakes with permafrost. That means it’s permanently cold and miserable. It’s really sad I don’t live there anymore. Not that I liked it very much since I was trapped in an icy crystal called methane hydrate almost ever since I was born.

I have been in slumber, trapped in a bubble for more than 40,000 years . That’s when I was born through anaerobic digestion. What a mouthful! It really means that when plants died and decay at the bottom of these Russian peat bogs, Mama got some friendly single-celled microbes called Methanogens to help break down these leafs and I was born in the process. They don’t really like oxygen so these bogs were perfect. Much later, the Pleistocene rolled around and a permanent layer of ice covered me and trapped me even as I was released from the rich layer of organic material.

Horrible as that sounds, I assure you it’s definitely more dignified than my cousins who were born through the burps and farts of cows or found in termites and camels. I bet that really smells but rest assured I’m colorless and odorless!

It’s been pretty peaceful and content for the last epoch or so, but recently the weather got pretty hot and the ice started to thaw. I could feel it in my every molecule that my liberation was near.

Suddenly I was free. As unexpected as my slumber, I bubbled up through the thawing lake in an ebullition elevator. I shot up into the sky enjoying my newly found freedom. Happy and free I flew up into the atmosphere where I found many of my cousins and friends already waiting for me to play! There were so many new faces for they tell me that with almost 1.3 billion cows around burping all day long, methane became the new black! We were popular. Then we found cousins who were being created by the bacteria in waterlogged rice fields or even just garbage sitting in what they call a landfill. Just think of the amount of land these humans use to produce food and waste. We were really popular.

One day, rumours started floating up to us in the troposphere that the humans were getting upset with us and started calling us a “greenhouse gas”. They said we trap the heat being reflected from the ground and stop them from escaping from the atmosphere. It was causing Mama to have a fever and everything was falling sick.

So that was why my home in Siberia suddenly became no more! Because of all this heat that was trapped by what the humans called “global warming” that the temperature increased and made my icy home melt. But because it melted, more of my friends and I were released and it only made things worse! When we were released from the Methane Hydrate, we found some dissolved oxygen in the water and hooked up with them and created some carbon dioxide and water. Those of us that did not hook up with the oxygen escaped to the atmosphere with the carbon dioxide. I heard there were a lot of other carbon dioxides that also escaped into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuel.

Carbon Dioxide challenged us to a competition and whoever could absorb more heat radiated from the ground would win. We were doing so well, Mama. The Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change even gave us a higher “global warming potential” than those wimpy carbon dioxide! We were 21 times stronger at warming the atmosphere than CO2. It was only a game, Mama, but now we made you sick.

I should have known better. I had almost forgotten the last time Mama burped. 55 million years ago, Mama burped but nobody knows why she did it. Maybe she had a fever in her oceans or a comet tickled her. The humans called it the Methane-burp theory . I was released into the ocean and atmosphere and caused global warming during the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum. Within a few thousand years, temperature increased by 8 ÂșC but there was none of these humans around and nobody to complain about us making a mess of the atmosphere.

This time, things are different. Other than us Methanes, the Carbon Dioxides and many of the other types of Greenhouse Gases are also wreaking havoc. Mama is not getting better anytime soon.

Luckily, word is going around that in about 10 years, I will meet those hydroxyl radicals, more affectionately known to us as OH. When we hook up to create CH3 and water. Those of my cousins up in the stratosphere also react with these OH to come back down to the ground. The human scientists call this an oxidation sink which pretty much takes care of us up here.

In fact we are so good at helping Mama get well by returning to the biosphere in such a short time, the humans decided that we are the best way to help Mama feel better in the next 25 years. I can only hope that the humans learn their lesson soon and stop allowing us Methanes to escape into the atmosphere by producing us less or harnessing us for something useful like biogas or using microbes to consume us. But since half of my cousins roaming the atmosphere came from works of human activity, it’s best they wise up soon.

Oh, how I long to go home to my arctic bog where I can sing my song another day.

Suggested Readings
Schiermeier, Q. (2003) “Gas Leak!”, Nature, Vol. 423, 12 June 2003, pp. 681-682

Walter, K. M., Zimov, S. A., Chanton, J. P., Verbyla, D. & Chapin, F. S. III (2006) “Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming”, Nature, Vol. 443, 7 September 2006, pp. 71-75

Nature (2006) “Abstractions”, Nature, Vol. 442, Issue 7099, 13 July 2006, p. xiii

Hopwood, N. and Cohen, J. (2006) “Greenhouse Gases and Society” (available online at Link; Last accessed: 14 Nov 2006)

EPA (2006) “Methane” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Available online at: Link; Last accessed: 14 Nov 2006)

IPCC (1996) “Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change--Contribution of Working Group I to the Second Assessment Report of the IPCC”, Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

IPCC (2001) “Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”, January 2001


eugene said...

Nice work, enjoyed it. Such a simple molecule yet so potent...

Monkey said...

thanks :)

Monkey said...

its interesting how so many people gave me positive feedback about this short story... so much so that I was really surprised by all your responses! Thank you thank you thank you. i feel very encouraged to have people emailing me or even my sister calling me from Germany telling me she loves this essay.

I can only pray my lecturer feels the same!