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60-Second Earth

Laughing Gas No Laughing Matter in Atmosphere

Nitrous oxide is damaging the ozone layer and the climate. David Biello reports.

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

There's a whole lot of laughing gas in the atmosphere these days. But it's no laughing matter. Nitrous oxide, or N2O, wafts up from manure and the chemical fertilizer sprayed on fields. Industry contributes as well.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a new study in Science today confirming that this gas is chewing away at the ozone layer as well as contributing to climate change. 

In fact, now that the world has banded together to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons and the other volatile gases previously responsible for carving out the seasonal hole in the ozone layer, laughing gas is the lead culprit, according to the researchers. 

While we don't much like ozone in the air we breathe, higher up it helps shield the planet from high-energy ultraviolet sunshine, which, among other things, can cause skin cancer. And nitrous oxide also traps heat very well. Over a century it has more than 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.  

So restraining the more than 10 million metric tons of N2O derived from human activity might be a good idea. How? More judicious use of fertilizer on fields and capturing N2O when it's produced industrially could reduce laughing gas significantly. Seriously.

—David Biello

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