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Abrupt Change in Atmospheric Methane Concentration
     
         ABRUPT CHANGES IN THE EARTH’S CLIMATE SYSTEM

 

        ABRUPT CHANGE IN ATMOSPHERIC

                    METHANE CONCENTRATION



After carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) is the next most important greenhouse gas that humans directly influence, Methane is a potent greenhouse gas because it strongly absorbs terrestrial infrared (IR) radiation.  Methane’s atmospheric abundance has more than doubled since the start of the Industrial Revolution (Etheridge et al., 1998; MacFarling Meure et al., 2006), amounting to a total contribution to radiative forcing over this time of ~0.7 watts per square meter (W m-2), or nearly half of that resulting from parallel increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (Hansen and Sato, 2001).  Additionally, CO2 produced by CH4 oxidation is equivalent to ~6% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.  Over a 100-year time horizon, the direct and indirect effects on radiative forcing from emission of 1 kg CH4 are 25 times greater than for emission of 1kg CO2 (IPCC, 2007).  On shorter time scales, methane’s impact on radiative forcing is higher. 
 
The primary geological reservoirs of methane that could be released abruptly to the atmosphere are found in ocean sediments and terrestrial soils as methane hydrate.  Methane hydrate is a solid in which methane molecules are trapped in a lattice of water molecules (fig. 1.8).  On Earth, methane hydrate forms under high pressure-low temperature conditions in the presence of sufficient methane.  These conditions are most often found in relatively shallow marine sediments on continental margins but also in some high-latitude soil (Kvenvolden, 1993).  Estimates of the total amount of methane hydrate vary widely, from 500 to 10,000 gigatons of carbon (GtC) total stored as methane in hydrates in marine sediments, and 7.5-400 GtC in permafrost (both figures are uncertain).  The total amount of carbon in the modern atmosphere is ~810 GtC, but the total methane content of the atmosphere is only ~ GtC (Dlugokencky et al., 1998).  Therefore, even a release of a small portion of the methane hydrate reservoir to the atmosphere could have a substantial impact on radiative forcing. 
 
There is little evidence to support massive releases of methane from marine or terrestrial hydrates in the past.  Evidence from the ice core record indicates that abrupt shifts in methane concentration have occurred in the past 110,000 years (Brook et al., 1996), but the concentration changes during these events were relatively small.  Father back in geologic time, an abrupt warming at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary about 55 million years ago has been attributed by some to a large release of methane to the atmosphere.  Concern about future abrupt release in atmospheric methane stems largely from the possibility, that the massive amounts of methane present as solid methane hydrate in ocean sediments, and terrestrial soils may become unstable in the face of global warming.  Warming or release of pressure can destabilize methane hydrate, forming free gas that may ultimately be released to the atmosphere (Fig. 1.9).
 
 
Destabilization of Marine Methane Hydrates
 
This issue is probably the most well known die to extensive research on the occurrence of methane hydrates in marine sediments, and the large quantities of methane apparently present in this solid phase in primarily continental margin marine sediments.  Destabilization of this solid phase requires mechanisms for warming the deposits and/or reducing pressure on the appropriate time scale, transport of free methane gas to the sediment-water interface, and transport through the water column to the atmosphere (Archer, 2007).  Warming of bottom waters, slope failure, and their interaction are the most commonly discussed mechanisms for abrupt release.  However, bacteria are efficient at consuming methane in oxygen-rich sediments and the ocean water column, and there are a number of physical impediments to abrupt release from marine sediments. 
 
On the time scale of the coming century, it is likely that most of the marine hydrate reservoir will be insulated from anthropogenic climate change.  The exception is in shallow ocean sediments where methane gas is focused by subsurface migration.  These deposits will very likely respond to anthropogenic climate change with an increased background rate of sustained methane release, rather than an abrupt release.
 
 
Destabilization of Permafrost Hydrates
 
Hydrate deposits at depth in permafrost soils are known to exist, and although their extent is uncertain, the total amount of methane in permafrost hydrates appears to be much smaller than in marine sediments. Surface warming eventually would increase melting rates of permafrost hydrates. Inundation of some deposits by warmer seawater and lateral invasion of the coastline are also concerns and may be mechanisms for more rapid change.
 
Destabilization of hydrates in permafrost by global warming is unlikely over the next few centuries (Harvey and Huang, 1995). No mechanisms have been proposed for the abrupt release of significant quantities of methane from terrestrial hydrates (Archer, 2007). Slow and perhaps sustained release from permafrost regions may occur over decades to centuries from mining extraction of methane from terrestrial hydrates in the Arctic (Boswell, 2007), over decades to centuries from continued erosion of coastal permafrost in Eurasia (Shakova et al., 2005), and over centuries to millennia from the propagation of any warming 100 to 1,000 meters down into permafrost hydrates (Harvey and Huang, 1995).
 
 
Changes in Wetland Extent and Methane Productivity
 
Although a destabilization of either the marine or terrestrial methane hydrate reservoirs is the most likely pathway for an abrupt increase in atmospheric methane concentration, the potential exists for a more gradual, but substantial, increase in natural methane emissions in association with projected changes in climate.  The most likely region to experience a dramatic change in natural methane emission is the northern high latitudes, where there is increasing evidence for accelerated warming enhanced precipitation, and widespread permafrost thaw which could lead to an expansion of wetland areas into organic-rich soils that, given the right environmental conditions, would be fertile areas for methane production (Jorgenson et al., 2001, 2006).
 
Tropical wetlands are a stronger methane source than boreal and arctic wetlands and will likely continue to be over the next century, during which fluxes from both regions are expected to increase. However, several factors that differentiate northern wetlands from tropical wetlands make them more likely to experience a larger increase in fluxes.  
 
The balance of evidence suggests that anticipated changes to northern wetlands in response to large-scale permafrost degradation, thermokarst development, a positive trend in water balance in combination with substantial soil warming, enhanced vegetation productivity, and an abundant source of organic matter will very likely drive a sustained increase in CH4 emissions from the northern latitudes during the 21st century.  A doubling of northern CH4 emissions could be realized fairly easily.  Much larger increases cannot be discounted.
 
 
                                                           SUMMARY
 
The prospect of a catastrophic release of methane to the atmosphere as a result of anthropogenic climate change appears very unlikely.  However, the carbon stored as methane hydrate and as potential methane in the organic carbon pool of northern (and tropical) wetland soils is likely to play a role in future climate change. Changes in climate, including warmer temperatures and more precipitation in some regions, particularly the Arctic, will very likely gradually increase emission of methane from both melting hydrates and natural wetlands. The magnitude of this effect cannot be predicted with great accuracy yet, but is likely to be at least equivalent to the current magnitude of many anthropogenic sources.
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