Banned industrial solvent sheds new light on methane mystery

Since 2007, scientists have been searching to find the cause of a sudden and unexpected global rise in atmospheric methaneMethane is one of the six greenhouse gases to be mitigated under the Kyoto Protocol and is the major component of natural gas and associated with all hydrocarbon fuels, animal husbandry and agriculture. Coal-bed methane is the gas found in coal seams. (IPCC), a potent greenhouse gasGreenhouse gas emissions cause dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Emissions include CO2, fluoridated gases, methane which are emitted by human activity such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels, and water vapour., following almost a decade in which concentrations had stayed relatively constant.  Recent studies have explored a range of possible causes. Suggestions have included a rise in oil and natural gas extraction, increased emissionsEmissions of greenhouse gases, greenhouse gas precursors, and aerosols associated with human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, land-use changes, livestock, fertilisation, etc. (IPCC) from tropical wetlands or increases in emissions from growing East Asian economies.

However, a new paper by an international team of scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) investigates an alternative possibility: a rise and fall in the concentration of the substance that destroys methane in the atmosphere, the hydroxyl radical.

Lead author, Dr Matt Rigby from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry and Cabot Institute, said: “A change in the hydroxyl radical concentration would be a neat explanation for the changes in methane that we’ve seen.

“It would mean that emissions may not have increased suddenly in 2007, but rather, risen more gradually over the last couple of decades.”

Since the global concentration of the hydroxyl radical cannot be measured directly, the team’s findings were made by studying the rate at which the solvent methyl chloroform, which is also destroyed by hydroxyl, was removed from the atmosphere.

Professor Ron Prinn from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-authored the paper and leads the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE), an international projectProject is an intervention designed to achieve specific objectives within specified resources and implementation schedules, often within the framework of a broader program. (Glossary Monitoring and Evaluation Terms; MERG Monitoring & Evaluation Reference Group and UNAIDS) that measures greenhouse gas concentrations, said: “We have been monitoring trends in the methyl chloroform for nearly 40 years because of its role in depleting stratospheric ozoneOzone, the tri-atomic form of oxygen, is a gaseous atmospheric constituent. In the troposphere, ozone is created both naturally and by photochemical reactions involving gases resulting from human activities (smog). Troposphere ozone acts as a greenhouse gas. In the stratosphere, ozone is created ....

“Because methyl chloroform is now banned under the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Stratospheric Ozone Layer, we’ve see its concentration drop very rapidly.

“We can examine how this rate of decline changes from one year to the next to infer the hydroxyl radical concentration.”

Dr Steve Montzka from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who also co-authored the paper, and operates an independent measurement network for methylchloroform, added: “This paper re-examines some of the assumptionsAssumptions are hypotheses about factors or risks which could affect the progress or success of an intervention. Intervention results depend on whether or not the assumptions made, prove to be correct. (Glossary Monitoring and Evaluation Terms; MERG Monitoring & Evaluation Reference Group and ... that had previously been made in studies of hydroxyl radical and methyl chloroform and shows how they influence our understanding of methane’s atmospheric sink.

“To me, one of the main findings is that our objective analyses of two sets of observations tells essentially the same story, even as it becomes more and more difficult to measure methyl chloroform given that its concentration is approaching zero.”

Dr Rigby added that there was still uncertaintyUncertainty is a fact of climate change research, and includes the physical science like climate projections as well as the impacts of climate change. To communicate this range of possibilities is part of providing responsible climate information. remaining. He explained: “Whilst there are strong hints in our study that hydroxyl radical changes could be playing a significant role in the fluctuations in methane growth, our uncertainties are very large.

“In future, we need to think about new ways to reduce this uncertainty1. Quantitative definition: Measurement that characterizes the dispersion of values that could reasonably be attributed to a parameter. 2. Qualitative definition: A general and imprecise term that refers to the lack of certainty in data and methodology choices, such as the application of ..., if we are to truly understand changes in atmospheric methane.”

The study also lead to a more certain, but unexpected finding: that emissions of methyl chloroform had not dropped to zero.

Dr Rigby said: “Because its production is now banned globally, we were expecting to see no emissions of this substance at all. However, we have very strong evidence that emissions are continuing.”

The team are preparing a follow-up study that would determine where these emissions are originating. Meanwhile, they are continuing to monitor methane in the atmosphere, and are waiting to see whether its current rate of increase will continue.

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Materials provided by University of Bristol. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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