Constraints on the Late Holocene Anthropogenic Contribution to the Atmospheric Methane Budget

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Science  22 Nov 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6161, pp. 964-966
DOI: 10.1126/science.1238920

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Bipolar Signature

Atmospheric methane has increased approximately 2.5-fold since the start of the industrial revolution, a consequence of human activity. However, a smaller and more gradual rise began around 6000 years ago, near the time when human agriculture began to develop and expand. Mitchell et al. (p. 964) present two, high-resolution ice core methane records of the past 2500 years, one from each pole. Methane emissions were primarily from the tropics, with secondary contributions from the higher latitudes where most humans lived. Thus, both natural and human sources are needed to explain the late-Holocene atmospheric methane record.


The origin of the late preindustrial Holocene (LPIH) increase in atmospheric methane concentrations has been much debated. Hypotheses invoking changes in solely anthropogenic sources or solely natural sources have been proposed to explain the increase in concentrations. Here two high-resolution, high-precision ice core methane concentration records from Greenland and Antarctica are presented and are used to construct a high-resolution record of the methane inter-polar difference (IPD). The IPD record constrains the latitudinal distribution of emissions and shows that LPIH emissions increased primarily in the tropics, with secondary increases in the subtropical Northern Hemisphere. Anthropogenic and natural sources have different latitudinal characteristics, which are exploited to demonstrate that both anthropogenic and natural sources are needed to explain LPIH changes in methane concentration.

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