Reports

The Isotopic Composition of Methane in Polar Ice Cores

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Science  16 Dec 1988:
Vol. 242, Issue 4885, pp. 1535-1539
DOI: 10.1126/science.242.4885.1535

Abstract

Air bubbles in polar ice cores indicate that about 300 years ago the atmospheric mixing ratio of methane began to increase rapidly. Today the mixing ratio is about 1.7 parts per million by volume, and, having doubled once in the past several hundred years, it will double again in the next 60 years if current rates continue. Carbon isotope ratios in methane up to 350 years in age have been measured with as little as 25 kilograms of polar ice recovered in 4-meter-long ice-core segments. The data show that (i) in situ microbiology or chemistry has not altered the ice-core methane concentrations, and (ii) that the carbon-13 to carbon-12 ratio of atmospheric CH4 in ice from 100 years and 300 years ago was about 2 per mil lower than at present. Atmospheric methane has a rich spectrum of isotopic sources: the ice-core data indicate that anthropogenic burning of the earth's biomass is the principal cause of the recent 13CH4 enrichment, although other factors may also contribute.