Atmospheric data support a multi-decadal shift in the global methane budget towards natural tropical emissions

Alice Drinkwater, Paul I. Palmer*, Liang Feng, Tim Arnold, Xin Lan, Sylvia E. Michel, Robert Parker, Hartmut Boesch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

We use the GEOS-Chem global 3-D model and two inverse methods (the maximum a posteriori and ensemble Kalman filter) to infer regional methane (CH4) emissions and the corresponding stable-carbon-isotope source signatures from 2004-2020 across the globe using in situ and satellite remote sensing data. We use the Siegel estimator to determine linear trends from the in situ data. Over our 17-year study period, we estimate a linear increase of 3.6 Tg yr-1 yr-1 in CH4 emissions from tropical continental regions, including North Africa, southern Africa, tropical South America, and tropical Asia. The second-largest increase in CH4 emissions over this period (1.6 Tg yr-1 yr-1) is from China. For boreal regions we estimate a negative emissions trend of -0.2 Tg yr-1 yr-1, and for northern and southern temperate regions we estimate trends of 0.03 Tg yr-1 yr-1 and 0.2 Tg yr-1 yr-1, respectively. These increases in CH4 emissions are accompanied by a progressively isotopically lighter atmospheric δ13C signature over the tropics, particularly since 2012, which is consistent with an increased biogenic emissions source and/or a decrease in a thermogenic/pyrogenic emissions source with a heavier isotopic signature. Previous studies have linked increased tropical biogenic emissions to increased rainfall. Over China, we find a weaker trend towards isotopically lighter δ13C sources, suggesting that heavier isotopic source signatures make a larger contribution to this region. Satellite remote sensing data provide additional evidence of emissions hotspots of CH4 that are consistent with the location and seasonal timing of wetland emissions. The collective evidence suggests that increases in tropical CH4 emissions are from biogenic sources, with a significant fraction from wetlands. To understand the influence of our results on changes in the hydroxyl radical (OH), we also report regional CH4 emissions estimates using an alternative scenario of a 0.5 % yr-1 decrease in OH since 2004, followed by a larger 1.5 % drop in 2020 during the first COVID-19 lockdown. We find that our main findings are broadly insensitive to those idealised year-to-year changes in OH, although the corresponding change in atmospheric CH4 in 2020 is inconsistent with independent global-scale constraints for the estimated annual-mean atmospheric growth rate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8429-8452
Number of pages24
JournalAtmospheric Chemistry and Physics
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jul 2023


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