The Hot Zone

Unhappy Gas

Posted by Alison Hawkes on March 19, 2010
Category : Climate Science and Scientists, The man made climate

By Alison Hawkes

Remember the ozone hole? Well, it’s not gone yet but as of a 2005 IPCC report, the problem has stabilized, thanks to the worldwide ban on CFCs. That’s good because no one wants to get fried by ultraviolet radiation, but bad because it may be leading to greater warming, especially in the Antarctic.

Ozone hole over Antarctic, Sept. 2000

Geo-engineering enthusiasts say we should just shoot up sulfur aerosols, finely suspended sulfur particles that reflect sunlight, into the atmosphere. Never mind that we’d be stirring up environmental consequences like acid rain. But here’s another idea. Some new research is showing that we should be paying attention to another noxious gas, nitrous oxide.

Popularly known in dentists’ offices as “laughing gas,” nitrous oxide is no laughing matter. It is currently the largest remaining contributor to stratospheric ozone depletion, according to a 2009 NOAA study. It’s also — get this — 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and accounts for about 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Historical and projected Nitrous Oxide emissions from 1990-2010, US Emissions Inventory 2002

Nitrous oxide mainly comes from fertilizers, animal manure, fossil fuels, and  industrial processes (not dentist offices) and through the natural process of microbial soil digestion. As a side note, an article published last week in the journal Science warns that heightened production of nitrous oxide by microbes in “dead zones” along coastlines could end up being a significant contributor to global warming and ozone depletion.

So it seems logical that getting rid of human-sourced N2O could be a double-whammy for both the ozone hole and global warming. Not to mention a drug of substance abuse. See, it’s not good for anyone except microbes!

Eliminating N2O is impossible since it’s part of the natural system and needed in food production. But it’s possible to reduce it through alternative agricultural practices that require less fertilizer, eating less meat, and reducing car use. So far, according to the EPA, there are no formal voluntary programs to reduce N2O in specific industries.

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