Perturbed Earth: Why is Heat-Trapping Methane on the Rise?

Globally, atmospheric methane levels have been on the rise over recent years. And though the rate of rise is not as dramatic as seen during the late 1980s (yet), the relative rise of atmospheric methane has caused concern among scientists.

Methane is a major heat trapping gas. And it is the #2 driver of human-forced global warming behind fossil fuel burning based CO2 according to NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Lab. It also has an out-sized potential to swing global heat trapping values higher due to the fact that a single molecule of methane can trap around 86 times more heat than a single molecule of CO2 over the same period of time.


(Global trends in methane show a concerning jump in atmospheric values since leveling off in the mid-2000s. A combination of earth environment feedbacks to warming and fossil fuel related extraction, burning and transport activity are primary suspects for this increase. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Methane is a much shorter lived gas (one molecule lasts 8 years in the atmosphere while a molecule of CO2 lasts 500 years), and atmospheric concentrations of methane are far, far lower than CO2 (measured in parts per billion, not parts per million), however. Which is one of the reasons why CO2 (primarily from fossil fuel based burning) is the gas in the driver’s seat of the majority of present warming.

Given this context, the new upward swing in methane is troubling for a number of reasons. Which begs the question — where is the excess methane coming from?

One primary suspect is that the Earth System, warmed by fossil fuel burning, is starting to produce its own feedback carbon emissions. The way this works is that warmer wetlands (a major source of methane) become more biologically active and, in turn, produce more methane. Heavier rains might provide more flooded regions in which microbes become productive. And thawing permafrost in the far north may be providing new wetland based methane sources. So the nascent methane emissions could be coming from such varied sources as tropical wetlands (as some experts point out), from thawing and expanding biologically active permafrost zones, from increasing wildfire activity, from increasing methane emissions due to drought, or any combination of the above.

Add in potentially very leaky and large-scale, fossil fuel infrastructure related to gas and legacy infrastructure related to coal and the list of suspects grows very long indeed. A hint at where the larger sources of methane show up, at least at present, is provided by the atmospheric observatories. In particular, I’m going to turn to the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System (CAMS) for this part of today’s discussion:

Atmospheric Methane Hot spots

(Global atmospheric methane hot spots indicated by CAMS.)

What we find from looking at this map is that the highest concentrations of methane presently correspond with the densest collections of fossil fuel based industrial activity. This jibes with findings that 60 percent of the presently elevated atmospheric methane value is due to human activity — leaky gas infrastructure, leaky coal mines, and various human-based farming practices that produce methane (rice farming, cow belches etc). It also highlights the recently discovered fact that fossil fuel based leaks are 60 percent more extensive than previously indicated. Confusing this point is the recent Nature finding that though leaky gas and coal infrastructure were more leaky than expected, the large fossil fuel based infrastructure methane emission was not increasing over time.

So the visible, top-down readings in the CAMS monitor may mask a larger feedback delta, or change, in how the the Earth System itself is producing methane. In other words, the new bump in methane may be coming from a perturbed Earth.

As noted by NOAA research scientist Lori Bruhwiler in a recent Wired article:

“The most important science question we face now is the question of carbon-climate feedbacks. The question that’s really important is, what’s coming down the road?”

In other words, is the recent methane spike coming from changes to the Earth System driven by the longer term fossil fuel based warming? And if so, how much will it continue to feed back? How much more methane can we expect from tropical wetlands, fires, droughts and thawing permafrost? This is a big question with wide-ranging implications for our climate future.

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  1. PlazaRed

     /  May 16, 2019

    Thank you for the blog and its note with implications.
    Thinking about it, there may be a connection with the increased amount of leaf production in the summer months that then lead to an increased amount of decay and methane production in the fall to winter months.
    This could in fact be a chain reaction of more greenery leads to more decomposition gases, hence an unstoppable spiral into increasing global greenhouse gases.
    I have noticed over the last 3 years a massive increase in the amount of greenery and leaves in the springtime. Simply just a passing thought.
    What grows eventually has to rot into compost and gases!


    • eleggua

       /  May 17, 2019

      “I have noticed over the last 3 years a massive increase in the amount of greenery and leaves in the springtime. ”

      That’s a fact: there is more greenery on trees due to excess carbon. Article published yesterday by National Geographic:

      ‘Plants help absorb our carbon, but for how much longer?’
      PUBLISHED May 16, 2019

      “…The study was published in the journal Trends in Plant Science….

      “Terrestrial plants are removing about 29 percent of our emissions that would otherwise contribute to growth of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. What our model analysis showed is that the role of terrestrial photosynthesis in driving this land carbon sink is larger than estimated in most other models,” says Cernusak.

      The carbon sink refers to the amount of carbon taken in by plants versus the amount they might naturally emit through deforestation or respiration….

      …scientists agree that excess carbon is acting like a fertilizer for plants, boosting their growth.

      “There’s evidence that trees are leafier, and that there’s more wood,” says Cernusak. “The wood is really where more most of the carbon is absorbed in the mass of the plant.”

      Scientists at the Oak Ride National Laboratory have observed that when plants are exposed to increasing levels of CO2, the size of pores on a leaf increase.

      In Sendall’s own experimental research, she exposed plants to double the amount of carbon dioxide they were used to.

      Under those drastically increased CO2 conditions, “The makeup of their leaf tissues is a little different,” she says. “It makes it tougher for herbivores to eat and harder for larvae to grow on.”

      The levels of atmospheric CO2 are rising and it’s assumed that eventually, plants won’t be able to keep up….

      “I think policy makers should respond to our findings by acknowledging that the terrestrial biosphere is functioning for the moment as an efficient carbon sink,” says James Cook University’s Cernusak. “Take immediate measures to protect forests so that they can continue functioning in this way, and get to work immediately to de-carbonize our energy production.””


      • eleggua

         /  May 17, 2019

        “The levels of atmospheric CO2 are rising and it’s assumed that eventually, plants won’t be able to keep up….”

        ^^^That’s what this study shows:

        ‘Amount of carbon stored in forests reduced as climate warms
        Date: May 15, 2019 Source: University of Cambridge
        Summary: Accelerated tree growth caused by a warming climate does not necessarily translate into enhanced carbon storage, an international study suggests.

        “…The team, led by the University of Cambridge, found that as temperatures increase, trees grow faster, but they also tend to die younger. When these fast-growing trees die, the carbon they store is returned to the carbon cycle.

        The results, reported in the journal Nature Communications, have implications for global carbon cycle dynamics. As the Earth’s climate continues to warm, tree growth will continue to accelerate, but the length of time that trees store carbon, the so-called carbon residence time, will diminish….

        “As the planet warms, it causes plants to grow faster, so the thinking is that planting more trees will lead to more carbon getting removed from the atmosphere,” said Professor Ulf Büntgen from Cambridge’s Department of Geography, the study’s lead author. “But that’s only half of the story. The other half is one that hasn’t been considered: that these fast-growing trees are holding carbon for shorter periods of time.”

        Büntgen uses the information contained in tree rings to study past climate conditions. Tree rings are as distinctive as fingerprints: the width, density and anatomy of each annual ring contains information about what the climate was like during that particular year. By taking core samples from living trees and disc samples of dead trees, researchers are able to reconstruct how the Earth’s climate system behaved in the past and understand how ecosystems were, and are, responding to temperature variation….”


  2. Mblanc

     /  May 16, 2019

    Hi Robert,

    I think it was the desire to find a realistic discussion around methane that originally led to me pitching up here, many moons ago. I’m glad you are back in this format, I never found a replacement!

    Looking at the CAMS map, it certainly looks like south east asia is an issue. Perhaps the Chinese are focusing on local air quality to the exclusion of other environmental concerns? Methane is lighter than air, after all.

    Also, prevailing winds look like a bit of a complicating factor because Northern India is the start of the area of concern, and I think the winds are easterly (limits of knowledge alert!).

    I guess that ultimately there are multiple factors, but teasing out the dominant ones is the main challenge. Is the scary looking bit a recent thing, or is it more of a persistant feature?


    Liked by 1 person

  3. wharf rat

     /  May 17, 2019

    Deluge in California
    Some areas of California will experience the wettest second half of May in the historical record. Inches of rain will fall in the lowlands and several feet of snow will pile up in the high Sierra Nevada.

    The accumulated precipitation forecast for the next five days provided by the European Center is stunning, with roughly 5 inches in the high terrain and even two inches in San Francisco. This is a time of the year that California is normally quite dry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • rhymeswithgoalie

       /  May 17, 2019

      The porous rock of aquifers are commonly drawn down (wells and natural flows) and refilled (rain events over or replenishment from up-head of the aquifer) with no great change to the capacity of the water-bearing rock.

      They’ve drilled so deep and pulled so much water out of the Central Valley aquifers that there is a real risk that the upper levels will subside and compress, permanently losing porosity and/or conductivity.


    • eleggua

       /  May 17, 2019

      ‘Strong storms with heavy rain could douse Iowa for days; a wall of storms threaten 18 states’
      May 16, 2019

      “Iowa is in the cross-hairs of expected severe weather Thursday evening.

      The National Weather Service’s Des Moines office said Thursday morning that storms should develop mostly after 7 p.m. and along and north of U.S. Highway 30. Heavy rain and storms are expected to pop up repeatedly into next week, with many locations receiving between 2 and 5 inches of rain. The best chances for heavy rain are Friday in northern Iowa and Monday and Tuesday in central Iowa.

      The tumultuous spring weather will sweep the nation in coming days, with severe thunderstorms and tornadoes threatening almost 1 million square miles of 18 states.

      “Tornado Alley is certainly about to wake up,” AccuWeather extreme meteorologist Reed Timmer said.

      The wild weather sets in late Thursday with storms across parts of South Dakota and Nebraska to Michigan and Indiana before sprawling into a wider area Friday and the weekend. More than 40 million people live in the storm zone, which will roll as far south as New Mexico and Texas.

      But there is no end in sight — the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center highlighted a risk area for severe weather for eight straight days.

      “Pretty sure it’s the first time that all days on the day 4-8 have had contours drawn” since the forecasting tool became operational in 2007, climatologist Harold Brooks tweeted….

      “It’s hard to nail down where the most severe weather and tornadoes will hit over the next few days,” Walker said. “Pay attention to the weather, pay attention to weather alerts, pay attention to local warnings. Just pay attention!”…”


  4. rhymeswithgoalie

     /  May 17, 2019

    Eyeballing it, the brown blob seems to be around inner Mongolia. China is the largest coal producer in the world (lots of anthracite), and it looks like that is responsible for ~33% of its CH4 release.


  5. Vic

     /  May 17, 2019

    I wonder if the growing use of small scale anaerobic digesters could be a contributing factor. The rudimentary design of these systems results in biogas being vented to the atmosphere if not enough of the gas is being consumed.

    It sounds silly I know, until you look at some of the numbers involved…

    “By 1990 India had 1.23 million biogas plants. This number grew to 4.54 million by 2012.
    The corresponding Chinese numbers were 27 million biogas plants built.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. eleggua

     /  May 17, 2019

    Good piece on Undark this week re: the methane mystery.

    “…Amidst all this uncertainty, there is one part of the global methane budget that is more clearly quantified: emissions from U.S. oil and gas production. That’s largely thanks to the work of Steven Hamburg and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

    In the early 2000s, Hamburg was a professor of environmental science at Brown University. For a forest ecology course he taught, he drove students out to a field site each week in a natural gas-powered van. Later, he had an epiphany: While it seemed a cleaner, more efficient option than a gasoline-fueled vehicle, he had no idea how much gas it might be leaking. But he knew that leak rate mattered for the climate. Hamburg understood that methane was a powerful driver of near-term warming, and as an ecologist, he also knew that the rate of change in a system can be just as important as the magnitude.

    …In 2012, EDF launched a program to support the in-depth study of methane leaks throughout the U.S. oil and gas supply chain. The effort has brought together more than 140 different scientists from over 40 academic and research institutions, yielding more than 30 peer-reviewed publications and a much more finely grained understanding of how much methane leaks, and where, from fossil fuel extraction throughout the country.

    The culminating piece of research, published in Science last July, drew on ground-based measurements and observations from aircraft to estimate that methane emissions from the sector are 60 percent higher than estimates from inventories maintained by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That figure amounts to a leak rate of 2.3 percent of total natural gas production in the U.S. A leak rate of just 4 percent would cancel out the climate benefits of burning gas instead of coal to generate electricity.

    At the global scale, though, data on fugitive oil and gas emissions remains sparse. For example, there are few measurements of, and very little research access to, gas fields in Russia and Iran. Years ago, Hamburg chatted with Harvard atmospheric scientist Steven Wofsy about the problem. What level of spatial granularity, they mused, would be needed to see and pinpoint leaks from oil and gas fields and large facilities from space?

    That’s how MethaneSAT was born. Last year EDF announced that it would build and launch its very own methane-hunting satellite. “The metaphor I often use,” says Hamburg, “is we’re trying to get away from a handcrafted small-factory model, and we need to go to mass production. It’s too expensive and labor-intensive to deploy scientific teams [at the global scale].”

    Today, Wofsy is the science lead on the project. With a chuckle, he concedes it’s an extremely ambitious, “bonkers” undertaking — an environmental nonprofit trying to pull off a NASA-scale project. “EDF is very strategic,” he says, with admiration. “Their goal is to transform the oil and gas industry in the entire world by 2025.” ….


  7. eleggua

     /  May 17, 2019

    From Extinction Rebellion:

    ‘The New Normal: Eco-action sweeps the globe’
    May 16, 2019

    “The environmental narrative has been irrevocably changed: public concern is at an all-time high, with a clear majority of UK voters now backing (comparatively) radical action. The shift of consciousness is spreading fast across the world, with regional governments in New Zealand today joining the British Parliament in declaring a climate emergency.

    Our message is also resonating in the cultural world, with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts pledging to prioritise the issue, and the UK’s new poet laureate doing likewise. Revolutions don’t get televised, but maybe rebellions do?…

    We have every right to celebrate the progress achieved in the non-violent fight for ecological justice. Next week’s Global Climate Strike serves as a welcome reminder that the (de-)central cause of XR is one shared and furthered by so many others. We’d encourage rebels all over the world to join and support next week’s action. Same goes for so many brilliant initiatives like those of Ende Gelände, Reclaim the Power and Zero Hour, all happening later in the summer.

    As for Extinction Rebellion: this rebellion is only beginning. Though the regeneration and debriefing process continues, there are already plans for a number of major actions over the coming months, leading up to the next major Rebellion period in early autumn. In the meantime, groups are encouraged to continue taking autonomous Extinction Rebellion actions, in accordance with our aims and values…..”


    • Mblanc

       /  May 21, 2019

      It does feel different here in the UK, it’s the most successful climate change protest we have had here, and it was clearly well organised. Now Attenborough (a national treasure) has finally given the explicit warning that is well overdue, as well as the unrelenting stream of new evidence, middle England is getting on board.

      Of course, the politicians are still in some masochistic Brexit death spiral, so serious political impetus is still lacking, but everyone who watched those seals going off that cliff, are still carrying PTSD that is hard to shake off.

      Even the BBC has pitched in at last, and finally started to sound like a public service broadcaster! Will wonders never cease.

      As the current EU election is a kind of free hit for voters, I will be proud to vote Green on Thursday, and I’m hoping for well over 10% of the national vote. Whatever the Greens get, the Extinction Rebellion will have have given them a real shot in the arm.


  8. eleggua

     /  May 17, 2019

    More climate news recently revealed in tree rings:

    ‘New research finds unprecedented weakening of Asian summer monsoon’
    May 15, 2019

    “Rainfall from the Asian summer monsoon has been decreasing over the past 80 years, a decline unprecedented in the last 448 years, according to a new study.

    The new research used tree ring records to reconstruct the Asian summer monsoon back to 1566. The study, published in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters, found the monsoon has been weakening since the 1940s, resulting in regional droughts and hardships.

    The new research finds man-made atmospheric pollutants are likely the reason for the decline. The 80-year decline in the monsoon coincides with the ongoing boom in industrial development and aerosol emissions in China and the northern hemisphere that began around the end of World War II, according to the study’s authors.

    Previous studies have looked at tree ring chronologies from this region but the new study, “surpasses [previous dendrochronology studies] in terms of the timespan covered and the number of trees involved,” said Steve Leavitt, a dendrochronologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a co-author of the new study. “We were able to gather nearly 450 years worth of tree ring data with clear annual resolution from an area where tree ring growth correlates very strongly with rainfall.”…”


  9. eleggua

     /  May 17, 2019

    ‘Wood wide web: Trees’ social networks are mapped’
    15 May 2019

    “Research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another.

    This subterranean social network, nearly 500 million years old, has become known as the “wood wide web”.

    Now, an international study has produced the first global map of the “mycorrhizal fungi networks” dominating this secretive world.

    Details appear in Nature journal.

    Using machine-learning, researchers from the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and Stanford University in the US used the database of the Global Forest Initiative, which covers 1.2 million forest tree plots with 28,000 species, from more than 70 countries….

    “Just like an MRI scan of the brain helps us to understand how the brain works, this global map of the fungi beneath the soil helps us to understand how global ecosystems work,” said Prof Crowther.

    “What we find is that certain types of microorganisms live in certain parts of the world, and by understanding that we can figure out how to restore different types of ecosystems and also how the climate is changing.”

    Losing chunks of the wood wide web could well increase “the feedback loop of warming temperatures and carbon emissions”.

    Mycorrhizal fungi are those that form a symbiotic relationship with plants.

    There are two main groups of mycorrhizal fungi: arbuscular fungi (AM) that penetrate the hosts’s roots, and ectomycorrhizal fungi (EM) which surround the tree’s roots without penetrating them.

    EM fungi, mostly present in temperate and boreal systems, help lock up more carbon from the atmosphere. They are more vulnerable to climate change.

    AM fungi, more dominant in the tropics, promote fast carbon cycling.

    According to the research, 60% of trees are connected to EM fungi, but, as temperatures rise, these fungi – and their associated tree species – will decline and be replaced by AM fungi.

    “The types of fungi that support huge carbon stores in the soil are being lost and are being replaced by the ones that spew out carbon in to the atmosphere.”

    This could potentially accelerate climate change.

    If there isn’t a reduction in carbon emissions by 2100, there could be a 10% reduction in EM – and the trees that depend on them.

    The results of this finding can now serve as a basis for restoration efforts such as the UN’s trillion tree campaign by informing which types of tree species, depending on their associated mycorrhizal network, to plant in what particular area of the world.

    Mycorrhizal ecologist Dr Merlin Sheldrake, said, “Plants’ relationships with mycorrhizal fungi underpin much of life on land. This study … provides key information about who lives where, and why. This dataset will help researchers scale up from the very small to the very large.”…”


  10. eleggua

     /  May 17, 2019

    ‘Nearly a quarter of West Antarctic ice is now unstable’
    Date: May 16, 2019 Source: University of Leeds
    Summary: In only 25 years, ocean melting has caused ice thinning to spread across West Antarctica so rapidly that a quarter of its glacier ice is now affected, according to a new study.

    “By combining 25 years of European Space Agency satellite altimeter measurements and a model of the regional climate, the UK Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) have tracked changes in snow and ice cover across the continent.

    A team of researchers, led by Professor Andy Shepherd from the University of Leeds, found that Antarctica’s ice sheet has thinned by up to 122 metres in places, with the most rapid changes occurring in West Antarctica where ocean melting has triggered glacier imbalance.

    This means that the affected glaciers are unstable as they are losing more mass through melting and iceberg calving than they are gaining through snowfall.

    The team found that the pattern of glacier thinning has not been static. Since 1992, the thinning has spread across 24% of West Antarctica and over the majority of its largest ice streams — the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers — which are now losing ice five times faster than they were at the start of the survey.

    The study, published today in Geophysical Research Letters, used over 800 million measurements of the Antarctic ice sheet height recorded by the ERS-1, ERS-2, Envisat, and CryoSat-2 satellite altimeter missions between 1992 and 2017 and simulations of snowfall over the same period produced by the RACMO regional climate model.

    Together, these measurements allow changes in the ice sheet height to be separated into those due to weather patterns, such as less snowfall, and those due to longer term changes in climate, such as increasing ocean temperatures that eat away ice.

    Lead author and CPOM Director Professor Andy Shepherd explained: “In parts of Antarctica the ice sheet has thinned by extraordinary amounts, and so we set out to show how much was due to changes in climate and how much was due to weather.”

    To do this, the team compared the measured surface height change to the simulated changes in snowfall, and where the discrepancy was greater they attributed its origin to glacier imbalance.

    They found that fluctuations in snowfall tend to drive small changes in height over large areas for a few years at a time, but the most pronounced changes in ice thickness are signals of glacier imbalance that have persisted for decades.

    Professor Shepherd added: “Knowing how much snow has fallen has really helped us to detect the underlying change in glacier ice within the satellite record. We can see clearly now that a wave of thinning has spread rapidly across some of Antarctica’s most vulnerable glaciers, and their losses are driving up sea levels around the planet.

    “Altogether, ice losses from East and West Antarctica have contributed 4.6 mm to global sea level rise since 1992.”

    Dr Marcus Engdahl of the European Space Agency, a co-author of the study, added: “This is an important demonstration of how satellite missions can help us to understand how our planet is changing. The polar regions are hostile environments and are extremely difficult to access from the ground. Because of this, the view from space is an essential tool for tracking the effects of climate change.”‘


  11. wharf rat

     /  May 18, 2019

    Liked by 2 people

  12. PlazaRed

     /  May 18, 2019

    Interesting that people on the blog are talking about walls of storms in the mid west and deluges in California, I have to try and remember these terms for local discussions in my area, where its warm and sunny with little wind and almost no cloud cover.
    I have been monitoring the Arctic sea ice over the last few months and to say the least, its disturbing. If you look at the charts and especially the second chart for the Arctic then the thickness of the Arctic sea ice looks like it might be insufficient to support sea coverage for much longer this year. Check out the area around the North Pole in particular.
    Taking into account that its only mid May, so we have now 4 months or 120 days more of sea ice melting the whole situation looks to put it simply, dire.
    We must be aware of localized views of weather and apparent climate activity, as its so easy to concentrate on what is in the back yard and not see the big picture.
    Generally things do not look good, or even acceptable for this year with CO2 at 415/ million and sea ice in manic decline. Here in southern Spain where the 3rd week in May is traditionally the month were everything turns brown and dead, plants are bursting with color and everything id very green, no doubt gorging themselves on the increased CO2 on the menu!
    Keep an eye on the polar ice situation as its a lot more important than probably anything else at the moment?


  13. Mblanc

     /  May 21, 2019

    Scientists believe that global sea levels could rise far more than predicted, due to accelerating melting in Greenland and Antarctica,

    The long-held view has been that the world’s seas would rise by a maximum of just under a metre by 2100.

    This new study, based on expert opinions, projects that the real level may be around double that figure


    • PlazaRed

       /  May 21, 2019

      Thank you for that comment.
      I would be of an opinion that 2 meters sea level rise will be at best mindlessly optimistic and it will be a lot more than that. !00 years from now the world will probably be in a state of chaos.
      The global population is rising and they want energy, not so much in the well controlled 1st world but in the backwaters and places of little education or awareness, these are the places where cash, and transport are of the principle importance, so energy is at a premium. There people, even if aware of the consequences of CO2 rise etc will probably have no time for green policies.
      A real shame but the problem with CO2 use is in education not just laws and rules.


    • Mulga Mumblebrain

       /  May 28, 2019

      And that, too, will prove a vast under-estimate, if there is anyone left in 2100 to measure the effect.


  14. Syd Bridges

     /  May 30, 2019

    And yhere’s also our old friend methane hydrate.



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