This research, to be published Friday in the journal Science, contradicts some suggestions that the sudden release of massive amounts of methane frozen in seafloor deposits may have been responsible – or at least added to - some past periods of rapid global warming, including one at the end of the last ice age.
The findings were made with analysis of carbon isotopes from methane frozen in Greenland ice core samples, by researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Victoria, University of Colorado, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego.
For climate researchers, an understanding of methane behavior is of some significance because it is the second most important "greenhouse gas" after carbon dioxide. Its atmospheric concentration has increased about 250 percent in the last 250 years, and it continues to rise about 1 percent a year.
"Methane is a gas that makes a significant contribution to global warming but has gone largely unnoticed by the public and some policy makers," said Hinrich Schaefer, a postdoctoral research associate in the OSU Department of Geosciences. "Its concentration has more than doubled since the Industrial Revolution, from things like natural gas exploration, landfills, and agriculture. We need to know whether rapid increases of methane in the past have triggered global warming or just been a reaction to it."
To better answer this question, researchers studied two stable isotopes of carbon found in methane, that can provide a better idea of where the methane came from during a period thousands of years ago when Earth was emerging from its most recent ice age, and entering the interglacial period that it is still in. At that time, methane concentration went up 50 percent in less than 200 years.
Several things naturally produce methane, including biomass burning, geologic sources, wetlands, animals, and aerobic production by plants, a mechanism that was unknown until just recently. And huge amounts of methane – with more carbon stored in them than all the known oil and gas fields on Earth – are found in methane hydrates on the seafloor. In this setting, the cold temperatures and pressure keep the methane stable and prevent it from entering the atmosphere.
But some researchers have theorized that something might release the trapped seafloor methane – submarine landslides, a drop in pressure caused by dropping sea levels, or warming of ocean waters.
If that happened, it might cause a huge increase in atmospheric levels of methane and global warming. Some have hypothesized that this may be one of the factors that help cause cyclical ice ages – as ice levels rise and sea levels drop, methane might be released from the seafloor hydrates, causing global warming and an end to the ice age. Then the process would start over again.
"There have been estimates that releasing even 1 percent of the methane hydrates in the seafloor could double the atmospheric concentration of methane," said Ed Brook, an associate professor of geosciences at OSU and co-author on the study. "So we looked to the past to see if that may have happened during previous periods of rapid global warming."
Based on their isotopic analysis of the methane from the Greenland ice cores, the researchers concluded that it did not come from seafloor hydrate deposits or "gas bursts" of methane associated with them. The most likely candidates, they said, were higher emissions from tropical wetlands or larger amounts of plants, or some other combination of sources.
If the rise in methane had come from seafloor hydrate deposits, the study found, the atmospheric levels of methane would have had a different isotopic "signature" than they actually did.
There are still important questions to answer about methane in Earth's atmosphere and the role it may play in global warming, the scientists said. For one thing, the current understanding of methane sources and sinks does not completely explain the isotopic signature of methane now found in the atmosphere. This indicates that estimates of methane emissions, including the human-made contribution, may have to be revised.
There are also concerns, they said, about methane trapped in permafrost across wide areas of the Earth's Arctic regions. There are significant amounts of methane found in this permafrost that could be released if it melted, and also organic material associated with melting permafrost that could cause further increases in methane. This might cause "a fairly significant rise in the total level of atmospheric methane of around 20 percent," Schaefer said.
By largely ruling out major bursts of methane from seafloor deposits during a period of global warming, however, this study suggests there may not be any "reinforcing" greenhouse mechanism from that cause. The increase in tropical wetlands or other factors that caused a large, rapid methane increase at the end of the last ice age may be relevant to future changes in methane, but changes in land use and vegetation cover due to human activities complicate the analysis of this issue, the scientists said.
Researchers at OSU are international leaders in the study of past climate changes, some of which have been surprisingly rapid - on the order of years or decades - and the mechanisms that cause them. These studies were funded by the National Science Foundation, American Chemical Society, and other grants and fellowships.
Ed Brook | EurekAlert!
Research sheds new light on forces that threaten sensitive coastlines
24.04.2017 | Indiana University
NASA sees the end of ex-Tropical Cyclone 02W
21.04.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
24.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.04.2017 | Materials Sciences
24.04.2017 | Life Sciences