Newly Discovered Greenhouse Gas Is 7,100 Times More Harmful Than CO2, Though Concentrations Are Low
Scientists in Toronto are warning of a greenhouse gas they've just discovered that has the potential to devastate the climate if levels were to rise. Each molecule of perfluorotributylamine, or PFTBA, has the greenhouse gaseous bite of 7,100 carbon dioxide molecules, according to new research from the University of Toronto.
Published Nov. 27 in Geophysical Research Letters, the paper outlines the way PFTBA disrupts the earth's radiative balance — its ability to shed the heat of the sun's rays. That imbalance has grown relative to the injection of industrial pollutants, which trap heat, into the atmosphere. The most prolific and dangerous greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, comes primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. According to The Guardian, which reported on the PFTBA findings, the concentration of carbon dioxide in earth's atmosphere is high, 400 parts per million.
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This new greenhouse gas is much worse but much scarcer. "PFTBA is extremely long-lived in the atmosphere and it has a very high radiative efficiency; the result of this is a very high global warming potential," Angela Hong, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. "Calculated over a 100-year timeframe, a single molecule of PFTBA has the equivalent climate impact as 7,100 molecules of CO2." At only 0.18 parts per million where it was sampled in Toronto, the levels of PFTBA are not high enough to do great damage.
Still, as it relates to climate change, PFTBA is the most powerfully harmful chemical ever discovered. It is manmade, unregulated and has been primarily produced by the electrical industry for about the last 60 years. "This is a warning to us that this gas could have a very very large impact on climate change — if there were a lot of it," Drew Shindell, a NASA climatologist told The Guardian. "Since there is not a lot of it now, we don't have to worry about it at present, but we have to make sure it doesn't grow and become a very large contributor to global warming."
Scientists say that more research is being conducted on previously unrecognized greenhouse gases, offering a broader picture of the synthetic pollutants that choke our atmosphere. For example, even though PFTBA is now known to be the most effective greenhouse gas, its class of compounds had never before been studied for its effects on climate change, the research team reported. And right now, there's nothing we can do to make it go away. "There are no known processes that would remove PFTBA from the lower atmosphere," they said.
In November, climate scientists estimated that net global carbon emissions would rise by 2.1 percent in 2013, spurred by coal and oil burning in China and the United States. They had hoped that by curbing the production of the world's leading greenhouse gas, nations could spare the earth from warming by 2 degrees Celsius, their recommended ceiling. Now it seems unlikely any change will prevent that increase by the year 2100.
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