A 21st-century shift from fossil-fuel to biogenic methane emissions indicated by 13CH4

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Science  01 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6281, pp. 80-84
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2705

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Getting a rise out of agriculture

Methane, a powerful and important greenhouse gas, has been accumulating nearly uninterruptedly in the atmosphere for the past 200 years, with the exception of a mysterious plateau between 1999 and 2006. Schaefer et al. measured methane's carbon isotopic composition in samples collected over the past 35 years in order to constrain the cause of the pause. Lower thermogenic emissions or variations in the hydroxyldriven methane sink caused the plateau. Thermogenic emissions didn't resume to cause the subsequent rise. Instead, the ongoing rise is most likely due to biogenic sources, most notably agriculture.

Science, this issue p. 80


Between 1999 and 2006, a plateau interrupted the otherwise continuous increase of atmospheric methane concentration [CH4] since preindustrial times. Causes could be sink variability or a temporary reduction in industrial or climate-sensitive sources. We reconstructed the global history of [CH4] and its stable carbon isotopes from ice cores, archived air, and a global network of monitoring stations. A box-model analysis suggests that diminishing thermogenic emissions, probably from the fossil-fuel industry, and/or variations in the hydroxyl CH4 sink caused the [CH4] plateau. Thermogenic emissions did not resume to cause the renewed [CH4] rise after 2006, which contradicts emission inventories. Post-2006 source increases are predominantly biogenic, outside the Arctic, and arguably more consistent with agriculture than wetlands. If so, mitigating CH4 emissions must be balanced with the need for food production.

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