Scientists from MIT and Scripps Institution of Oceanography have announced the discovery of an exceptionally potent new greenhouse gas. Sulfuryl fluoride is an up-and-coming fumigant against insects, but scientists have discovered that if the new gas becomes widely used it could contribute significantly to climate change.
Sulfuryl fluoride was introduced as a replacement for methyl bromide. An ozone-depleting gas, methyl bromide, is currently being phased out under the international treaty on substances that deplete the ozone layer, a.k.a the Montreal Protocol. However the new study on sulfuryl fluoride published in the Journal of Geophysical Research proves that the solution may be worse than the problem.
“Our analysis has shown that the lifetime [for sulfuryl fluoride] is about 36 years, or eight times greater than previously thought, with the ocean being its dominant sink,” says Ron Prinn, co-author of the paper and director of MIT’s Center for Global Change Science. A new understaning of the gases’ lifespan combined with studies of its infrared-absorbing properties by NOAA “indicate that, ton for ton, it is about 4,800 times more potent a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide” says Prinn.
Currently, the gas is only 1.5 parts per trillion in the atmosphere. This is a very small quantity: for example Carbon dioxide has reached 387 parts per million and methane 1,745 parts per billion. However, sulfuryl flouride has been rising 5 percent per year.
The scientists hope that discovering the potency of sulfuryl fluoride before it becomes industry standard, will allow time for the fumigation industry to develop less threatening substitutes.
“Given human inventiveness, there are surely other alternatives out there,” says Prinn.
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