Earth Matters

Methane Mystery Gets More Muddled

May 5th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

Model simulation of the hydroxyl radical concentration in the atmosphere. Image by Angharad Stell, University of Bristol.

A mystery about global methane trends just got more muddled. Two studies published in April 2017 suggest that recent increases in atmospheric concentrations of methane may not be caused by increasing emissions. Instead, the culprit may be the reduced availability of highly reactive “detergent” molecules called hydroxyl radicals (OH) that break methane down.

Understanding how globally-averaged methane concentrations have fluctuated in the past few decades—and particularly why they have increased significantly since 2007—has proven puzzling to researchers. As we reported last year:

“If you focus on just the past five decades—when modern scientific tools have been available to detect atmospheric methane—there have been fluctuations in methane levels that are harder to explain. Since 2007, methane has been on the rise, and no one is quite sure why. Some scientists think tropical wetlands have gotten a bit wetter and are releasing more gas. Others point to the natural gas fracking boom in North America and its sometimes leaky infrastructure. Others wonder if changes in agriculture may be playing a role.”

The new studies suggest that such theories may be off the mark. Both of them find that OH levels may have decreased by 7 to 8 percent since the early 2000s. That is enough to make methane concentrations increase by simply leaving the gas to linger in the atmosphere longer than before.

Atmospheric methane has continued to increase, though the rate of the increase has varied considerably over time and puzzled experts. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from NOAA. Learn more about the image.)

As a press release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) noted: “Think of the atmosphere like a kitchen sink with the faucet running,” said Christian Frankenberg, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech and a JPL researcher. “When the water level inside the sink rises, that can mean that you’ve opened up the faucet more. Or it can mean that the drain is blocking up. You have to look at both.”

Unfortunately, neither of the new studies is definitive. The authors of both papers caution that high degrees of uncertainty remain, and future work is required to reduce those uncertainties. “Basically these studies are opening a new can of worms, and there was no shortage of worms,” Stefan Schwietzke, a NOAA atmospheric scientist, told Science News.

You can find the full studies here and here. The University of Bristol has also published a press release.

Methane emissions related to human activity are on the rise. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from CDIAC. Learn more.)

On This Date: The Bingham Canyon Landslide

April 10th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

NASA/EO-1/ALI/Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon. More info about this image here.

Four years ago today, one of the largest non-volcanic landslides in U.S. history began high on the northern wall of Utah’s Bingham Canyon mine. During two main bursts of activity that day, several million cubic meters of rock and soil careened deep into the mine’s pit.

This was a case where science and the right preparation saved lives. The company that runs the mine had installed an interferometric radar system months before the slide, and it prevented miners from being blindsided. With the radar system in place, mine operators detected changes in the stability of the pit’s walls well before the landslide occurred. When the slope finally gave way, all the workers in the pit had already been evacuated. Not one person was injured.

The image above was acquired by the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on the Earth Observing-1 satellite on May 2, 2013. For more detailed and recent images of the mine pit, see the montage below. Photos A, B, and C — from Rio Tinto Kennecott — show an overview of the pit, the source area, and slide debris in the immediate aftermath of the event. D is an aerial image from the state government of Utah that shows the mine nine months before the landslide. E is part of the ALI satellite image above. F is a second aerial image taken in February 2014. By then, much of the debris had been removed and a new access road had been built.

The montage was originally published in March 2017 by the Journal of Geophysical Research as part of a study authored by Jeffrey Moore of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The University of Utah wrote about the research in a recent blog post:

On April 10, at 9:30 p.m. and again at 11:05 p.m., the slope gave way and thundered down into the pit, filling in part of what had been the largest man-made excavation in the world. Later analysis estimated that the landslide was at the time the largest non-volcanic slide in recorded North American history. Now, University of Utah geoscientists have revisited the slide with a combined analysis of aerial photos, computer modeling, and seismic data to pick apart the details. The total volume of rock that fell during the slide was 52 million cubic meters, they report, enough to cover Central Park with 50 feet of rock and dirt. The slide occurred in two main phases, but researchers used infrasound recordings and seismic data to discover 11 additional landslides that occurred between the two main events. Modeling and further seismic analysis revealed the average speeds at which the hillsides fell: 81 miles per hour for the first main slide and 92 mph for the second, with peak speeds well over 150 mph.

The interferometric radar system is not the only safety technology in place at Bingham Canyon. Drones, GPS, and trained experts keep a vigilant eye out for signs of landslides at this mine. Technology and tactics like this  mean landslides cause very few injuries and deaths in the United States even though significant landslide potential exists in many parts of the country. As we recently reported, many other parts of the world (notably Africa and South America) are not nearly so fortunate.

A Climate Model for the History Books

April 5th, 2017 by Adam Voiland

Decades or even centuries from now, when enough time has passed for historians to write definitive accounts of global warming and climate change, two names are likely to make it into history books: Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald.

In the late-1960s, these two scientists from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory developed one of the very first climate models. In 1967, they published results showing that global temperatures would increase by 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) if the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere doubled.

The top map shows temperature changes in one of Manabe’s coupled atmosphere–ocean models. It depicts what would happen by the 70th year of a global warming experiment when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are doubled. The model’s predictions match closely with levels of warming observed in the real world. The lower image shows observed change from a 30-year base period around 1961–1990 and  1991–2015. The map was obtained using the historical surface temperature dataset HadCRUT4. Figure published in Stouffer & Manabe, 2017.

As Ethan Siegel pointed out in Forbes, carbon dioxide content has risen by roughly 50 percent since the pre-industrial era. Observed temperatures, meanwhile, have increased by 1°C (1.8°F). For a pair of scientists working in a time when computer instructions were compiled on printed punch cards and processing was thousands of times slower than today, they created a remarkably accurate model. That is not to say that Manabe claims his 1967 model is perfect. In fact, he is quick to point out that there are some aspects that his and other climate models still get wrong. In an interview with CarbonBrief, he put it this way:

Models have been very effective in predicting climate change, but have not been as effective in predicting its impact on ecosystem[s] and human society. The distinction between the two has not been stated clearly. For this reason, major effort should be made to monitor globally not only climate change, but also its impact on ecosystem[s] through remote sensing from satellites as well as in-situ observation.

There is a great deal of fascinating detail about Manabe and Wetherald’s model and the early history of climate modeling that do not fit into a short blog post. If you want to learn more, this section of Spencer Wirt’s the History of Global Warming is well worth the time. The American Institute of Physics has also posted a Q & A with Manabe that covers his 1967 paper, which is considered one of the most influential in climate science. And in March 2017, Manabe and colleague Ronald Stouffer authored a commentary that was published in Nature Climate Change. The Independent also has a good article about this.

This line plot shows yearly temperature anomalies from 1880 to 2014 as recorded by NASA, NOAA, the Japan Meteorological Agency, and the Met Office Hadley Centre (United Kingdom). Though there are minor variations from year to year, all four records show peaks and valleys in sync with each other. All show rapid warming in the past few decades, and all show the last decade as the warmest. Read more about this chart.

Most NASA stories about sea ice records tend to start with the year 1979, when consistent observations started to be collected regularly by satellites. But we do know a bit about what happened before then based on aerial, ocean, and ground-based data. And now some recently recovered observations and new modeling suggest that Arctic sea ice grew for a period between 1950 and 1975.

The Sun hangs low on the horizon above solidified pancake ice in the Arctic Ocean. (Photograph courtesy Andy Mahoney, NSIDC.)

A new analysis led by Marie-Ève Gagné of Environment and Climate Change Canada offers an explanation for the rise: air pollution. Gagné and colleagues showed that sulfate aerosol particles, which are released by the burning of fossil fuels, may have disguised the impact of greenhouse gases on Arctic sea ice.

In a press release, the American Geophysical Union explained more details:

These particles, called sulfate aerosols, reflect sunlight back into space and cool the surface. This cooling effect may have disguised the influence of global warming on Arctic sea ice and may have resulted in sea ice growth recorded by Russian aerial surveys in the region from 1950 through 1975, according to the new research.

“The cooling impact from increasing aerosols more than masked the warming impact from increasing greenhouse gases,” said John Fyfe, a senior scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada and a co-author of the new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters.

To test the aerosol idea, researchers used computer modeling to simulate sulfate aerosols in the Arctic from 1950 through 1975. Concentrations of sulfate aerosols were especially high during these years before regulations like the Clean Air Act limited sulfur dioxide emissions that produce sulfate aerosols.

The study’s authors then matched the sulfate aerosol simulations to Russian observational data that suggested a substantial amount of sea ice growth during those years in the eastern Arctic. The resulting simulations show the cooling contribution of aerosols offset the ongoing warming effect of increasing greenhouse gases over the mid-twentieth century in that part of the Arctic. This would explain the expansion of the Arctic sea ice cover in those years, according to the new study.

Aerosols spend only days or weeks in the atmosphere so their effects are short-lived. The weak aerosol cooling effect diminished after 1980, following the enactment of clean air regulations. In the absence of this cooling effect, the warming effect of long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide has prevailed, leading to Arctic sea ice loss, according to the study’s authors.

Read more about aerosols and sea ice.

This chart, from Gagné et al, shows the area-averaged annual mean sea ice concentration anomaly between 1950 and 2005. The red line reflects Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) data, which is based on historical sea ice charts from several sources (aircraft, ship, and satellite observations). The blue Walsh & Chapman data includes additional historical sources and uses slightly different techniques for merging various data streams. The black line is a simulated mean sea ice concentration from the CanESM2 large ensemble, a group of models developed at the Canadian Center for Climate Modelling and Analysis. Anomalies are relative to climatological averages between 1975 and 2005. The time series have been lightly smoothed with 5-year running mean. The gray shading shows the 5-95 percent range over the individual simulations of the model ensemble. The dotted lines are the piecewise linear approximated trends.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Aqua/MODIS/Jeff Schmaltz

In August and September 2015, a massive dust storm swirled across the Middle East. After reporting on the storm, I read a fair amount of speculation — but no clear answers — as to what kicked up such an unusually large amount of dust. Several reports made the case that the ongoing war in Syria was a contributing factor. The war, some scientists speculated, had increased the military traffic over unpaved roads and had led farmers to abandon their land.

Now a new study led by a researcher from Duke University argues that the war was not an important cause. By analyzing satellite data of vegetation cover before the war, the researchers concluded that the conflict did not have much effect on vegetation. (Vegetation helps hold sand and soil in place.) In fact, the satellites observed that agricultural activity was healthy in 2015 in comparison to earlier years.

Rather, the research team found that the key drivers of the dust storm were meteorological. The summer of 2015 was unusually hot and dry compared to the past 20 years, meaning more dust was available and in a condition that winds could easily lift. So when an unusual cyclonic wind pattern developed in late August and persisted for more than a week, a mega dust storm was born.

Read a press release about the study from Princeton University, and read the full study in Environmental Research Letters. To reach their conclusion, the researchers used Aerosol Optical Depth and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) observations from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroadiomters (MODIS), and meteorological simulations from the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model. You can view several types of satellite imagery of the storm, which began on August 31 and peaked on September 8, on NASA’s Worldview browser.

 

Research Roundup: The Latest on Methane

July 11th, 2016 by Adam Voiland

Global atmospheric concentrations of methane are rising—along with scientific scrutiny of this potent greenhouse gas. In March 2016, we published a feature story that took a broad look at why methane matters. Since that story came out, several new studies have been published. But first, some broader context from that feature story…

The long-term, global trend for atmospheric methane is clear. The concentration of the gas was relatively stable for hundreds of thousands of years, but then started to increase rapidly around 1750. The reason is simple: increasing human populations since the Industrial Revolution have meant more agriculture, more waste, and more fossil fuel production. Over the same period, emissions from natural sources have stayed about the same.

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The Zeppelin Observatory in Svalbard monitors methane concentrations. It is one of several stations that helps scientists assemble a global picture of atmospheric aerosols and pollutants. Photo courtesy of AGAGE.

If you focus on just the past five decades—when modern scientific tools have been available to detect atmospheric methane—there have been fluctuations in methane levels that are harder to explain. Since 2005, methane has been on the rise, and no one is quite sure why. Some scientists think tropical wetlands have gotten a bit wetter and are releasing more gas. Others point to the natural gas fracking boom in North America and its sometimes leaky infrastructure. Others wonder if changes in agriculture may be playing a role.

methane_concentration_graph

A combination of historical ice core data and air monitoring instruments reveals a consistent trend: global atmospheric methane concentrations have risen sharply in the past 2000 years. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from the EPA.)

The stakes are high when it comes to sorting out what is going on with methane. Global temperatures in 2014 and 2015 were warmer than at any other time in the modern temperature record, which dates back to 1880. The most recent decade was the warmest on the record.  The current year, 2016, is already on track to be the warmest. And carbon emissions — including methane — are central to that rise.

methane_increases

Atmospheric methane has continued to increase, though the rate of the increase has varied considerably over time and puzzled experts. (NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using data from NOAA.)

 

Isotope Data Suggests Fossil Fuels Not to Blame for Increase
Methane bubbles up from swamps and rivers, belches from volcanoes, rises from wildfires, and seeps from the guts of cows and termites (where is it made by microbes). Human settlements are awash with the gas. Methane leaks silently from natural gas and oil wells and pipelines, as well as coal mines. It stews in landfills, sewage treatment plants, and rice paddies. With so many different sources, many scientists who study methane are hesitant to pin the rising concentration of the gas on a particular source until more data is collected and analyzed.

However, an April 2016 study led by a researcher from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research came down squarely on one side. After measuring the isotopic composition, or chemical structure, of carbon trapped in ice cores and archived air samples from a global network of monitoring stations, the scientists concluded that blaming the rise in atmospheric methane on fossil fuel production makes little sense.

Screenshot 2016-07-08 16.52.25

Chart from Schaefer et al.

 

When methane has extra neutrons in its chemical structure, it is said to be a “heavier” isotope; fewer neutrons make for “lighter” methane. Different processes produce different proportions of heavy and light methane. Lighter isotopes of a carbon (meaning they have a lower ratio of Carbon 13 to Carbon 12 than the atmosphere), for instance, are usually associated with methane recovered from fossil fuels.

As shown in the chart above, the authors observed a decrease in the isotopes associated with fossil fuels at all latitudes beginning in 2006. But at the same time, global concentrations of methane (blue line in the top chart) have risen. “The finding is unexpected, given the recent boom in unconventional gas production and reported resurgence in coal mining and the Asian economy. Either food production or climate-sensitive natural emissions are the most probable causes of the current methane increase,” the authors noted.

If fossil fuel production is not responsible for increasing concentrations of atmospheric methane, than what is? The authors say that more research is needed to be certain, but that there are indications that the agricultural sector in southeast Asia (especially rice cultivation and livestock production) is likely responsible.

Large Increase in U.S. Emissions over Past Decade
A March 2016 study led by Harvard researchers based on surface measurements and satellite observations  detected a 30 percent increase in methane emissions from the United States between 2002 and 2014 — an amount the authors argue could account for between 30 to 60 percent of the global growth in atmospheric methane during the past decade.

Screenshot 2016-07-08 15.47.38

Chart from Turner et al.

The most significant increase (in red, as observed with Japan’s Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite) occurred in the central United States. However, the authors avoid making claims about why. “The U.S. has seen a 20 percent increase in oil and gas production and a nine-fold increase in shale gas production from 2002 to 2014, but the spatial pattern of the methane increase seen by GOSAT does not clearly point to these sources. More work is needed to attribute the observed increase to specific sources.”

First Time Satellite View of Methane Leaking from a Single Facility
For the first time, an instrument on a spacecraft has measured the methane emissions leaking from a single facility on Earth’s surface. The observation, detailed in a June 2016 study, was made by the hyperspectral spectrometer Hyperion on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. On three separate overpasses, Hyperion detected methane leaking from the Aliso Canyon gas leak, the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

“The percentage of atmospheric methane produced through human activities remains poorly understood. Future satellite instruments with much greater sensitivity can help resolve this question by surveying the biggest sources around the world and helping us to better understand and address this unknown factor in greenhouse gas emissions,” David Thompson, an atmospheric chemist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an author of the study. For instance, the upcoming Environmental Mapping and Analysis Program (EnMAP) is a satellite mission (managed by the German Aerospace Center) that will provide new hyperspectral data for scientists for monitoring methane.

As detailed in a July 2016 study, scientists and engineering are also working on a project called GEO-CAPE that will result in the deployment of a new generation of methane-monitoring instruments on geostationary satellites that can monitor methane sources in North and South America on a more continuous basis. Current methane sensors operate in low-Earth orbit, and thus take several days or even weeks before they can observe the same methane hot spot. For instance, EO-1 detected the Aliso Canyon plume just three times between December 29, 2015 and February 14, 2016, due to challenges posed by cloud cover and the lighting angle. A geostationary satellite would have detected it on a much more regular basis.

The Hottest Volcano of Them All

January 9th, 2015 by Adam Voiland

kilauea_ali_2012028_detail

What is the hottest volcano of them all? It depends on how you define “hottest,” but a fascinating new analysis crunches the numbers in a few different ways, using satellite observations of 95 of Earth’s most active volcanoes since 2000.

In terms of total energy radiated, the prize goes to Hawaii’s Kilauea (shown above), which has been spilling lava continuously throughout the study period.  Thanks to its lava lake, Nyiragongo (Democratic Republic of Congo) came in a close second.  Africa’s most active volcano — and Nyiragongo’s neighbor — Nyamuragira came in third for overall energy radiated. For a full ranking of all 95 volcanoes, see the chart at the bottom of the bottom of this page.

Note that the volcanoes emitting the most heat do not necessarily emit it explosively. In fact, most of the top heat producers were shield volcanoes that released mafic lava slowly.

If you ignore the steady, continuous heat produced by volcanoes and look simply at the “extra” heat produced during eruptions, then the rankings look different. Iceland’s ongoing Holuhraun eruption has radiated the most heat for an event. At the time that the study was published, Holuhraun had radiated about one-third more thermal energy than the 2012-2013 eruption of Russia’s Tolbachik, which itself radiated about 50 percent more energy than the 2011-2012 eruption of Nyamuragira.

The study, led by Robert Wright of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, was based on data acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites.