Scientists found that molecular hydrogen (H2) in the atmosphere had increased by 70% during the 20th century, and this increase was linked to modern human activity.
In new research, the team examined air samples accumulated in cores drilled from Antarctic ice caps to discover the implications of anthropogenic emissions on recent air pollution. This includes emissions of fossil fuels and hydrogen which are increasing without “any sign of slowing down”.
The study is the first to explicitly establish a solid figure for the amount of human emissions since the industrial age.
Atmospheric hydrogen sources and sinks
(Photo: Photo by Ryan Arnst on Unsplash)
Molecular hydrogen in the atmosphere is formed due to the decomposition of formaldehyde, but also a by-product of the combustion of fossil fuels. Experts can confirm that hydrogen has an indirect impact on the distributions of methane and ozone – the second and third most important greenhouse gases after carbon dioxide.
This means that hydrogen, although it is an important trace element in the atmosphere, has global warming potential since it is considered an indirect greenhouse gas.
Air samples from near the South Pole of Antarctica suggest that atmospheric hydrogen rose from 330 parts per billion to 550 parts per billion between 1852 and 2003.
âAging air is trapped in the perennial snowpack above an ice cap, and its sampling gives us a very accurate account of atmospheric composition over time,â says Earth scientist John Patterson of the University of California at Irvine.
“Our paleoatmospheric reconstruction of H2 levels has dramatically improved our understanding of anthropogenic emissions since the start of the industrial revolution.”
The expert believes that hydrogen emissions have been largely underestimated. Patterson added that “most of the growth in H2 is attributable to human activities, especially those resulting in emissions from transportation, but some of the increase is still not accounted for.”
“There is no evidence that molecular hydrogen emissions to the atmosphere have decreased in the 20th century, so we are probably underestimating non-automotive gas sources.”
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Hydrogen emissions and leaks are under-studied
As a general rule, hydrogen leaks in terms of human-made emissions are ârarely countedâ in relation to emissions, and it is important that this is also noted. Hydrogen leakage from automobile exhaust has not been measured directly by industrial processes, but is known to be very significant.
Researchers estimate a leak rate of 10% between 1985 and 2005, about half of the recent increase in hydrogen emissions. The source of the wells? “Seriously under-researched”.
Climate scientists and environmentalists also hope to intensify green hydrogen processes that could lead to large leaks. They fear that leaks from industrialized hydrogen gas plants could accelerate the lifespan of methane in our atmosphere.
The authors wrote that industrial processes must be carefully studied “to minimize hydrogen leakage from the synthesis, storage and use of hydrogen in a future global hydrogen economy if the we want to take full advantage of the climate benefits â.
Scientists are looking for a new source of H2 emissions “looming on the horizon,” although they hope to find a source of hydrogen that doesn’t turn out to be a leak.
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