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Nord Stream leaks release methane into environment

September 28, 2022

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is spewing into the atmosphere after Nord Stream pipeline explosions. Here's what we know so far about what that means for the climate.

Dänemark Ostsee bei Bornholm | Leck Nord Stream 2
An explosion on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline sends natural gas to the surface of the Baltic Sea. The disturbance to the sea is over one kilometer (0.62 miles) in diameter.Image: Danish Defence Command via REUTERS

Major leaks on the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines releasing huge amounts of gas into the surrounding Baltic Sea and atmosphere were reported on Monday.

Images show the surface of the sea broiling as gas erupted from pipelines 80-110 meters (265-360 feet) below sea level. The long-term impact of the explosion is hard to quantify.

ʺAccording to our current knowledge, the leaks in the Nord Stream pipeline do not pose any serious threat to the marine environment of the Baltic Sea,ʺ a spokesperson for Germany's Environment Ministry told DW.

Experts say the long-term climate impact of the emissions will be substantial.

ʺThe most direct effect of these gas leaks on climate is the extra dollop of the powerful greenhouse gas methane they are adding to the atmosphere,ʺ Dave Reay, executive director of the University of Edinburgh’s Climate Change Institute, said in a statement.

ʺThat said, this is a wee bubble in the ocean compared to the huge amounts of so-called 'fugitive methane' that are emitted every day around the world due to things like fracking, coal mining and oil extraction,ʺ he said.

The scale of the Nord Stream gas leaks is not yet known. Neither pipeline was in operation, but both contained natural gas.

What's behind the Nord Stream pipeline leaks?

Natural gas leaks are an environmental hazard

The gas from the Nord Stream pipeline leaks would have been burned for energy use regardless of the leak, so it is unlikely that more emissions were released than normal.

Methane is the main component of natural gas and significantly more harmful than carbon dioxide, the biggest contributor to climate change. 

The only reason methane is not the biggest contributor to the warming of our planet is because there is far less of it in our atmosphere than CO2 — only about 0.00017%, or 1.7 parts per million. There’s around 200 times more CO2 floating around.

Research has found that methane emissions are 80 times worse than carbon dioxide emissions over a 20 year scale — and that they already account for roughly 30% of global warming.

Methane contributes to climate crisis via greenhouse effect

Greenhouse gases such as methane act as a blanket insulating the Earth. They absorb energy and slow the rate at which heat leaves the planet through a process called the greenhouse effect.

For centuries, the greenhouse effect has occurred organically because of the natural release of methane and carbon dioxide from plants, animals and wetland areas.

Human activity over the past 150 years has prompted a huge rise in artificial greenhouse gas emissions, causing global temperatures to soar at an alarming rate. 

Data show that the impact of a man-made climate crisis from greenhouse gas emissions is already being felt around the world — including in Germany.

Data visualization COP26 Temperature Rise since 1880 EN
Temperatures have been rising year on year since records began in the late 19th century

Greenhouse gas emissions increasing in Europe

Global leaders have acknowledged that reducing methane emissions is vital to limiting global warming and averting the worst impacts of climate change.

At the UN global climate conference COP26 late last year, more than 100 nations pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

Governments in Europe have been criticized for U-turns on the pledges. Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions are currently 6% higher than they were when the conference took place less than a year ago. 

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, countries such as Germany have been scrambling to replace cheap natural gas imports from Russia with short-term solutions like the reopening of coal plants.

Will closing Nord Stream change energy strategies?

Nord Stream 1 and 2 are now shut down indefinitely because of the leaks — but many countries in Europe, including Germany, rely on these gas pipelines for energy.

Roughly 10% of Germany's energy comes from gas, and, although the country has stored enough to keep it going for some months, those stores will run out.

It is currently unclear how closing the Nord Stream pipelines will affect the European Union's energy strategies in the coming months.

Edited by: Clare Roth

DW journalist Fred Schwaller wears a white T-shirt and jeans.
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred