Methane bubbles are effect and cause of rise in temperature

Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)
25-NOV-2017 - Due to climate change, including rising temperatures, more and more methane is bubbling up from lakes, ponds, rivers and wetlands throughout the world. The release of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – leads to a further increase in temperature, thus creating a ‘vicious circle’. Reducing greenhouse gas is the way to break the vicious circle.

This is the conclusion of a team of biologists from Radboud University and NIOO in an article published in Nature Communications on 22 November.

"Never before have such unequivocal, strong relationships between temperature and emissions of methane bubbles been shown on such a wide, continent-spanning scale", says biologist Sarian Kosten of Radboud University.

Bubbling greenhouse gas

The study focused on shallow lakes, ponds, rivers and wetlands. These aquatic environments are relevant in the context of climate change because they are responsible for much of global greenhouse gas emissions. An important part of these emissions is caused by bubbles filled with methane gas that develop in the sediment at the bottom of these water bodies. When the bubbles reach the surface, the gas enters the atmosphere.  

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Methane bubbles in Pantanal, Brasil, the world's largest tropical wetland area (Source: Radboud University)

From a Dutch fish pond to postglacial lakes in Sweden

For the current research, an international team of scientists from Radboud University and NIOO studied existing literature and conducted a large experiment in close collaboration. First, existing research into methane bubbles was collected from various locations, ranging from a fishing pond in Malden (a town near Nijmegen) to postglacial lakes in northern Sweden and forest ponds in Canada. “Next, we simulated methane bubble production in 1000-litre ‘mini-lakes’ at the NIOO, where we could accurately control temperature and other conditions,” explains Ralf Aben, biologist at Radboud University. “In this way we excluded causes other than the rise in temperature.”

1 degree extra, 6 to 20 percent more methane

In open tanks filled with water and sediment, the researchers were able to mimic an annual cycle. Four tanks had a 'normal' Dutch climate, and in four other tanks the average temperature was 4 degrees Celsius higher. That led to 50 percent higher emissions of methane bubbles. The biologists predict that a temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius leads to 6 to 20 percent higher emissions of methane bubbles, which in turn leads to additional greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to an additional temperature increase.

Now what?

Nutrient-rich sediments produce more methane than nutrient-poor sediments. One possibility for reducing methane production is therefore to make sure that sediments contain fewer nutrients, which means using less fertiliser! 

The global rise in temperature will be difficult to reverse, but not impossible. “Every tonne of greenhouse gas that we emit leads to additional emissions from natural sources such as methane bubbles,” says Kosten. “Luckily, the opposite is also true: if we emit less greenhouse gas and the temperature drops, we gain a bonus in the form of less methane production. This bonus from nature should be our motivation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further.”

Text: NIOO-KNAW, Radboud University
Photo: Cees Mooij
Movie: Radboud University