According to experts, explosions in the Nord Stream pipelines that run from Russia to Europe could lead to extraordinary damage to the environment due to leakage of natural gas found on the surface of the Baltic Sea.
Methane, a greenhouse gas many times more environmentally harmful than carbon dioxide, found in the leakage of the Nord Stream pipeline ruptures could result in the biggest release of greenhouse gas into the water and atmosphere on record, potentially turning into a climate disaster.
More than one hundred thousand metric tons of natural gas are bubbling on the surface of the Baltic Sea over a one-kilometer area. Experts say that around ninety percent of the leak is comprised of methane with potentially catastrophic effects on climate.
The volume of methane within the leak is as much as five times more than the methane which escaped into the environment in the infamous Aliso Canyon disaster in 2016, during which 97,700 tons of methane were released, though at a much slower pace than the Nord Stream leakage.
According to the head of the Danish Energy Agency, Kristoffer Bottzauw, the leakage could potentially be equivalent to one-third of Denmark’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Experts worry that the damage on the Nord Stream pipelines could be so large that it will eventually contribute heavily to the world’s emissions of methane into the atmosphere. The atmosphere, as is widely known, is already burdened by the effects of gas, oil, and coal infrastructure.
Jackson and David Hastings, a retired chemical oceanographer in Gainesville, Florida, estimated that the leak could release around half a million tons of methane.
The leak was discovered earlier this week. Shocking footage released by the Danish military from a flyover of the affected region showed huge swathes of the Baltic Sea churning as the gas bubbled to the surface.
A military statement claimed that the largest leak “is spreading bubbles a good kilometer (3,280 feet) in diameter. The smallest is creating a circle about two hundred meters (656 feet) in diameter.”
The operator of Nord Stream 1 said the undersea lines had simultaneously sustained “unprecedented” damage in a single day. Both pipelines have been flashpoints in the energy tussle between Moscow and Europe.
On Thursday, Sweden’s Coast Guard confirmed a fourth leak in the pipelines. A Swedish vessel near the source of two leaks in Swedish waters is reporting a steady flow of gas to the surface.
Andrew Baxter, a chemical engineer at the environmental group EDP stated that the pipelines could release emissions equaling the annual emissions of two million cars. “That’s one thing that is consistent with these estimates,” said Baxter. “It’s catastrophic for the climate.”
According to Paul Balcombe, a member of the engineering faculty at the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London, the effects of these leaks are still coming into focus but are likely to be significant. “It would have a very large environmental and climate impact indeed—even if it released a fraction of this,” Balcombe said.
Rowan Emslie, a spokesperson at CATF, said many gas production factories had “safety systems” designed to burn any gas that escaped in a leak since this is preferable to allowing the raw methane to enter the atmosphere.
“It’s still CO2 emissions, [and] it’s still bad, but it’s not nearly so bad,” Emslie stated.
It’s really the pace at which the gas has entered the atmosphere that is concerning.
“The unprecedented aspect is that we don’t think we’ve seen a leak this large, [or] this fast before,” Emslie said, “which is why it’s so worrying.”
The fact that the Nord Stream leaks occurred underwater complicates matters further. Factors as varied as the size of the gas bubbles, the concentration of methane-eating microbes in the water, and the depth from which the gas traveled upward, can all affect the overall environmental impact.
Accident or sabotage?
Russia, the US, and European allies have accused each other of deliberately sabotaging the gas pipelines, as the Russian invasion in Ukraine intensifies.
“There is no doubt that these were explosions,” SNSN seismologist Bjorn Lund told broadcaster SVT, suggesting the pipelines were likely sabotaged.
“You can clearly see how the waves bounce from the bottom to the surface,” he said. “There is no doubt that it was a blast.” He added that the first explosion was recorded at 2:03 am on the night of Monday and the second at 7:04 pm on Monday evening.
Ukrainian Presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, has described the major leaks in two Russian gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea as a “terrorist attack.”
In a statement on Twitter, he called for more arms and said that Russia wants to destabilize the economic situation in Europe and cause pre-winter panic.
On Tuesday evening, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen condemned the “sabotage” and “deliberate disruption of active European energy infrastructure.”