Banking hard over the whitecaps off the west coast of Norway, the jetliner flying Dominika Pasternak and her fellow scientists descends so sharply that it seems for a moment as if the crew is about to ditch them all in the drink.
But the pilot, an unflappable veteran of Britain’s Royal Air Force, conveys a done-this-a-thousand-times confidence as the aircraft levels off at a nerve-shredding 50 feet above the Norwegian Sea.
“Three, two, one,” he advises over the intercom. “Now!”
And so begins the work of this giant airborne laboratory – a four-engine, 112-seat passenger plane stripped out and refitted with sensors that suck in air samples for analysis in real time.
Although they squint through the cabin windows as the plane makes its pass, Pasternak, 23, and her colleagues are chasing a quarry they will never actually see: methane, an invisible gas that poses a growing risk to the Earth’s climate. When the United Nations hosts a summit in New York last week to try to shore up the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb global warming, calls to cut emissions will focus on a more familiar greenhouse gas – the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.
But methane, another carbon-based compound, is emerging as a wild card in the climate-change equation. If CO2 has a warming effect akin to wrapping the planet in a sheet, the less-understood methane is more like a wool blanket. For more than a decade, scientists have been documenting a mysterious rise in levels of methane in the atmosphere. And it’s getting worse: Earlier this year, data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that the rate of the increase surged by 50 percent in the 2013-2018 period compared with the preceding five years.
In the United States, environmental groups have sought to bring methane emissions down by pushing the growing fracking industry to take more stringent measures against leaks of the gas. But last month, the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era regulations to curb methane emissions, saying the move would save companies money and remove red tape.
As the clock ticks, a network of researchers the world over is racing to find out why global methane levels are increasing so fast – and what can be done to stem the flow.
Here in the Arctic Circle, which is warming three times faster than the global average, Reuters accompanied three women in their 20s as they hunted for clues. Working separately but with the same goal, these researchers have staked their claim on a place where some of the most dramatic climate changes are starkly visible, and the biggest dangers may await.
In their painstaking, sometimes solitary work, the young scientists wrestle with the intellectual challenges posed by the methane riddle. But for all three women, their work in the Arctic connects them to something deeper than science: a return to childhood joys of the natural world, and a powerful sense of purpose.
Pasternak, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the words “Climate: The Fight of Our Lives” and a stylized image of the Earth engulfed in flames, is clear-eyed about the stakes. “I think it’s terrifying how much we are changing our planet, and how little is really done to counteract it,” she says. “We are guessing, but the more measurements we actually have, the better we can understand what’s going on.” Pasternak, a Polish PhD student in atmospheric chemistry at Britain’s University of York, focuses on the target: a cluster of oil rigs rising from the sea like fortresses, their squat legs supporting imposing superstructures of derricks, helipads and cranes.
Operated by the Natural Environment Research Council, a British government science funding agency, the flight is one of a series of sorties that Pasternak and colleagues from several universities conducted in late July and early August from Kiruna, an iron mining town in the Lapland region of northern Sweden.
The plane moves in a deliberate path, passing back and forth at different altitudes to build up a profile of the atmosphere downwind of the rigs below. Securely strapped in against the G-force at low altitudes, Pasternak and the other researchers confer over headsets and monitor the readings scrolling across their screens for any sign of a spike in methane levels. Their concentration is palpable, chatter kept to a minimum in the rigours of low-level flight. But after hours of methodically surveying the rigs, there is no sign of the kind of methane cloud they detected billowing from another platform the day before.
Frustratingly for Pasternak, the aircraft also narrowly missed a giant supertanker, its bright red hull bulging with domes used to store liquefied natural gas.
“They unfortunately got out of our range now, which is a shame,” says Pasternak, who had hoped to take a methane reading near the vessel. “They are hard to catch because they are very specialized ships.”
For Pasternak, the flight is more than a research trip: It’s the realization of a childhood dream. Growing up on a hillside outside the city of Krakow, she would awake to see a layer of pollution settled over the city like a shroud, then brave the smog to go to school in the valley below. Escaping to the pristine Bieszczady Mountains for horse-riding summer camps or to the old-growth Bia owie a Forest, Pasternak promised herself she would find a way to protect the environment by pursuing a career in science. As the plane makes its way back to its temporary base in a hangar in Kiruna, she is sober about the uncertainties.
“Not many people paid attention to methane until quite recently,” she says. “We don’t know enough about it to be able to tell how dangerous it is, but we suspect it’s very dangerous.” More recently, scientists have quantified methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas. Although it is much less prevalent in the atmosphere than CO2, the scientists found, it can generate more than 80 times more warming – molecule for molecule – than CO2 in the 20 years it takes to dissipate.
Today, there is broad agreement on the trend showing a surge in methane levels, but there is far less consensus on why it’s happening. Although oil and gas facilities are the leading industrial source of methane, scientists believe that growing amounts of the gas seeping from tropical wetlands in Africa and South America could be the biggest single driver of the current methane surge.
“I have fallen in clear to the waist,” says Bennett, a postgraduate student in earth sciences from Medway, Massachusetts, and a member of the methane research program at the University of New Hampshire. Although she laughs, her expression suggests the dunking was amusing only in retrospect.