On Monday, a building housing 90 cows in Rasdorf , Germany, suddenly erupted into flames. The explosion damaged the roof and injured one of the animals, Reuters reports. The police investigating the incident found an unusual culprit: It was the cows. Their flatulence had caused the blast.
Bovine belches and flatulence contain a large amount of methane gas. One widely cited study from 1995 estimated that ruminant animals (such as cows, sheep, and deer) can produce between 250 to 500 litres of methane a day because of how their digestive system work.
The flammable gas is a natural byproduct of how they digest fibre, Bruce Woodacre, an expert on cow nutrition, told Business Insider in an email. Methane is a clear, odorless (the terrible smell is added to commercially-used versions of the gas), hydrocarbon gas that is flammable when it makes up between 5% and 15% of the air in a room — then, all it takes is a spark, and in the German building, that spark took place.
“A static electric charge caused the gas to explode with flashes of flames,” a statement from German police said.
Woodacre stressed that incidents like that in Germany are rare — he had never heard of another example. Normally buildings housing livestock are ventilated to let the methane escape.
“This is only a fire risk if the methane builds up in a closed environment with poor ventilation (bad housing),” Woodacre told us. When asked what farmers should do to ensure this didn’t happen to them, his answer was simple: “Ensure correct ventilation of all cow housing.”
Still, even if cow flatulence-related explosions are rare, the gas poses an even greater existential threat. Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas, according to the EPA, and is believed to be 20 times more potent as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Globally, it’s thought that 6% of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock.
So how do we stop exploding cow sheds and a rapidly warming world made hotter by cow flatulence? A 2011 study by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, suggested that a change in diet could cut livestock’s methane emissions by as much as 33%.
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