Articles | Volume 7, issue 8
02 May 2007
02 May 2007

Centennial evolution of the atmospheric methane budget: what do the carbon isotopes tell us?

K. R. Lassey, D. M. Etheridge, D. C. Lowe, A. M. Smith, and D. F. Ferretti

Abstract. Little is known about how the methane source inventory and sinks have evolved over recent centuries. New and detailed records of methane mixing ratio and isotopic composition (12CH4, 13CH4 and 14CH4) from analyses of air trapped in polar ice and firn can enhance this knowledge. We use existing bottom-up constructions of the source history, including "EDGAR"-based constructions, as inputs to a model of the evolving global budget for methane and for its carbon isotope composition through the 20th century. By matching such budgets to atmospheric data, we examine the constraints imposed by isotope information on those budget evolutions. Reconciling both 12CH4 and 13CH4 budgets with EDGAR-based source histories requires a combination of: a greater proportion of emissions from biomass burning and/or of fossil methane than EDGAR constructions suggest; a greater contribution from natural such emissions than is commonly supposed; and/or a significant role for active chlorine or other highly-fractionating tropospheric sink as has been independently proposed. Examining a companion budget evolution for 14CH4 exposes uncertainties in inferring the fossil-methane source from atmospheric 14CH4 data. Specifically, methane evolution during the nuclear era is sensitive to the cycling dynamics of "bomb 14C" (originating from atmospheric weapons tests) through the biosphere. In addition, since ca. 1970, direct production and release of 14CH4 from nuclear-power facilities is influential but poorly quantified. Atmospheric 14CH4 determinations in the nuclear era have the potential to better characterize both biospheric carbon cycling, from photosynthesis to methane synthesis, and the nuclear-power source.

Final-revised paper