Nav: Home

Greenhouse gas emissions from freshwater higher than thought

December 15, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - Do not underestimate the babbling brook. When it comes to greenhouse gases, these bucolic water bodies have the potential to create a lot of hot air.

According to a new analysis in the journal Ecological Monographs, by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleagues, the world's rivers and streams pump about 10 times more methane into our atmosphere than scientists estimated in previous studies. The new study also found that human activity seems to drive which streams are the biggest contributors.

"Scientists know that inland waters, like lakes and reservoirs, are big sources of methane," says Emily Stanley, a professor at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology and lead author of the paper. Yet accurately measuring emissions of methane from these sources has remained a challenge.

Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat at the Earth's surface. It is less prevalent than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but also more potent: A molecule of methane results in more warming than a molecule of carbon dioxide. Understanding how much methane is emitted into the atmosphere from all sources helps scientists account for the full global greenhouse gas budget, and take measures to mitigate its impact.

Rivers and streams haven't received much attention in accounting for that budget, Stanley says, because they don't take up much surface area on a global scale and, with respect to methane, didn't seem to be all that gassy. But over the years, measurements taken by Stanley and her lab members seemed to indicate these sources may produce more methane than scientists had previously known.

Together with other center researchers and scientists at the University of Winnipeg and the U.S. Geological Survey's LandCarbon Project, the team created a database of measured methane flux (the exchange of the gas between water and atmosphere) and methane concentrations measured in streams and rivers using data from 111 publications and three unpublished datasets.

The research team then used two different methods to calculate the best estimates of global methane emissions from the data. They found the emissions to be an order of magnitude higher than scientists had previously reported.

The result was "very surprising," Stanley says. "I thought maybe we'd be off by a factor of two, so I was taken aback by how much higher the estimate was."

The researchers pointed to one possible reason: Not every stream is identical. The analysis revealed noticeably higher methane emissions from streams and rivers in watersheds marked with heavy agriculture, urban development or the presence of dams. This suggests efforts to improve stream health may have the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gases.

"The fact that human activity in a watershed leads to high methane concentrations in those rivers and streams underscores yet another reason to pay attention to water quality," says Stanley. "On top of everything else, it adds to this climate problem, too."

Methane from freshwater is often a byproduct of bacterial metabolism, as they break down organic matter under low-oxygen conditions, like in the sediment at the bottom of a lake. As the climate warms, the contribution of greenhouse gases from natural sources likes rivers, streams and wetlands is expected to increase because higher temperatures accelerate this bacterial breakdown, releasing more carbon dioxide and methane.

The next step, says Stanley, is figuring out where all that methane comes from. Running rivers and streams are usually better aerated and full of oxygen, making all that methane a bit of a mystery. Is it coming from groundwater? Somewhere along a riverbank? At the bottom of the stream itself? For now, the babbling brook is keeping that information to itself.
-end-
Adam Hinterthuer (608) 890-2187, hinterthuer@wisc.edu

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Related Methane Articles:

Microorganisms reduce methane release from the ocean
Bacteria in the Pacific Ocean remove large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane.
Origin of massive methane reservoir identified
New research provides evidence of the formation and abundance of abiotic methane -- methane formed by chemical reactions that don't involve organic matter -- on Earth and shows how the gases could have a similar origin on other planets and moons, even those no longer home to liquid water.
Methane not released by wind on Mars, experts find
New study rules out wind erosion as the source of methane gas on Mars and moves a step closer to answering the question of whether life exists on other planets.
Unexpected culprit -- wetlands as source of methane
Knowing how emissions are created can help reduce them.
Methane-consuming bacteria could be the future of fuel
Northwestern University researchers have found that the enzyme responsible for the methane-methanol conversion in methanotrophic bacteria catalyzes the reaction at a site that contains just one copper ion.
More Methane News and Methane Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...