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Hold On to Your Lederhosen: Oktoberfest Produces a Whole Lot of Methane Gas

Incomplete combustion from gas appliances is likely the major culprit

Spoiler alert: No, it wasn't from beer burps. ( Michelangelo Gratton / Getty Stock)
smithsonian.com

Ah, Oktoberfest. The annual festival draws some six million revelers to Munich, where the music is thumping, the sausage is sizzling and the beer (so, so much beer) is flowing. But all of these good times might not be so great for the environment. As Kai Kupferschmidt reports for Science, a new study has found that Oktoberfest releases considerable amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere.

While the celebration was taking place in 2018, a team of scientists scurried around the perimeter of the festival sampling the air. (They weren’t allowed to enter the festival area due to safety concerns, and one can only imagine the FOMO.) Taking into account wind speed and direction, they estimated that 1,500 kilograms (3,306 pounds) of methane were emitted during the 16-day party.

In a preprint paper, which is under review in the journal Atmospheric and Chemistry Physics, the researchers note that they were not aware of any other studies dealing with methane emissions from festivals. So they decided to compare emissions from Oktoberfest to those wafting out of Boston, which is, the study authors write, known to be “a very leaky city.” On average, Oktoberfest released 6.7 micrograms of methane per square meter per second—10 times the average regional emission flux in Boston.

“Although it is difficult to compare the small and densely populated Oktoberfest premises with the entire city area of Boston,” the researchers acknowledge, “the comparison shows that the emission flux of Oktoberfest is significant.”

Methane is a greenhouse gas, the second most significant one after carbon dioxide. It doesn’t live for very long in the atmosphere, but it is highly effective at trapping radiation. “Per unit of mass, the impact of methane on climate change over 20 years is 84 times greater than [carbon dioxide]; over a 100-year period it is 28 times greater,” the Climate and Clean Air Coalition warns.

The amount of methane in the atmosphere has been on the rise since 2007, following a period of stability that began in the 1990s, reports Fred Pearce of Yale Environment 360. Pearce adds that researchers suspect the recent bump is being caused by the “the activities of microbes in wetlands, rice paddies, and the guts of ruminants,” which are mammals like cattle, sheep and goats that have a unique digestive system. Oil and gas drilling, along with hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), also play a major role in leaking methane gas into the environment.

Previous research has looked at the ways in which large festivals contribute to the emissions of other air pollutants, like nitrogen oxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but the connection between festivals and methane emissions had not previously been studied, according to the authors of the new report.

The major culprit was likely incomplete combustion in natural gas-powered cooking and heating appliances. (And in case you were wondering, the digestive byproducts of too much beer and greasy food—burps and flatulence, in other words—were probably not responsible for a significant portion of Oktoberfest’s methane output.)

Granted, there are more serious environmental concerns associated with big festivals, like people travelling by plane to get to them. But festivals take place around the world, and they have been an overlooked source of significant methane emissions, Jia Chen, lead author of the study, notes in an interview with the Guardian’s Ian Sample. This doesn’t mean that Oktoberfest and other celebrations should be canceled—just that festival organizers should implement measures, like improving gas appliances, to curb methane emissions.

“Small steps,” Chen tells Sample, “can bring us closer to achieving the world climate goals.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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