Beware of Dirt and Flatulence

Emily Hahn

Dirt and flatulence are not just manifestations of poor hygiene and manners. According to recent scientific studies, these two mundane companions to normal human existence are thought to be serious culprits in the acceleration of global warming.


A study funded by NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System Program found that the global livestock methane emission is 11% higher than previously thought. The research paper published in the journal Carbon Balance and Management in September suggests that the higher level of this greenhouse gas, originating primarily from cow and pig flatulence, poses an even greater threat to the environment.


Carbon dioxide has received most of the attention as the leading cause of global warming. But other gases, especially methane, are also considered as greenhouse gases. Although found at much smaller levels than carbon dioxide, methane is about 84 times better at absorbing the sun’s heat. Methane is best known as the main component of natural gas, a major source of energy; however, scientists believe that the primary cause of increased methane levels in the atmosphere is from livestock flatulence. As the world population grows, and demand for animal products increases, the alarming level of methane will only rise.


In a different study published in the journal Science in October, researchers found that warming of soil facilitates organic matter decay, which in turn increases carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Theoretically, this increase in the greenhouse gas will further elevate atmospheric temperatures, continuing a vicious cycle.


26 years ago, scientists divided a patch of Harvard University-owned forest. The experimental group was soil that was heated with underground cables to a temperature 9 degrees higher than the control group. They found that the warmer soil showed greater breakdown of organic matter by microbes. The researchers extrapolated that the amount of increased carbon dioxide production for the remainder of the century from warmer soil will be equivalent to the total carbon emissions from 20 years of fossil fuel consumption.


The results of the two separate studies show that dirt and flatulence are no laughing matter. The researchers showed that the science of global warming is even more complicated than already feared. The task of finding a solution seems daunting, and further research on the causes and solutions to this critical issue appears to be of utmost importance.