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Gaining a Better Understanding of Natural Methane Emissions

Developments in recent years, such as the Global Methane Pledge, announced in 2021 at COP26, and the launch earlier this year of MethaneSAT, which will provide unprecedented global coverage of methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, have drawn more attention to methane as a significant source of global warming.

By Paige Stein

Researchers gathered outside of Sterling Memorial Library
Researchers from around the U.S. gather for a three-day workshop at Yale  September 5-7 on ways to advance biogenic methane research.

Methane accounts for about 30% of warming since industrialization, with new records in annual increases in atmospheric methane being set in 2020 and 2021. However, the lion’s share of research and public attention has been focused on anthropogenic, or human-generated emissions, with far less being understood about natural biogenic sources of methane. Last fall, researchers from academia, government, and NGOs gathered on Yale’s campus in New Haven for a three-day workshop hosted by the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture (YCNCC) to discuss the infrastructure needed to advance biogenic methane research. YSE Assistant Professor of Ecosystem Carbon Capture Sparkle Malone, one of the workshop’s organizers and a member of the YCNCC scientific leadership team, talks about the challenges of measuring biogenic methane fluxes and how improving our understanding of them can help us better predict and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Q: Biogenic methane fluxes account for approximately 50% of the total methane contribution to the atmosphere. Yet, anthropogenic methane fluxes get most of the public and research attention. Why have biogenic methane fluxes been understudied, and why is it important to gain a better understanding of them? 

Firstly, I think it’s important to say that anthropogenic methane emissions should be studied extensively because those are the emissions that we can mitigate. Methane is 28 to 34 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere compared to an equivalent mass of carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe, but it stays in the atmosphere a much shorter time, about 9 to 12 years, when compared to carbon dioxide, which can last for hundreds of years or more. So, reducing anthropogenic methane emissions is a real opportunity to impact warming and meet the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. That said, biogenic methane fluxes are the least constrained and most uncertain fluxes in the global methane budget, so gaining a better understanding of the processes driving them — the sources and sinks — and how to scale them across space and over time is critical when defining effective mitigation targets.

Q: How did the idea originate for the “Observation Infrastructure for Natural Methane Emissions” workshop?

The workshop was organized by a group of us in the research community who have been working on the design and strategic development of methane infrastructure. We realized that there was an opportunity — at a time when the demand for research on regional to global scales continues to surge — to develop a more comprehensive but also more equitable model and help resolve some of the challenges we’ve had in the past. Most of the researchers who participated had experience working with ecological networks, federal agencies, and organizations.

Q: At the conclusion of the workshop, participants made recommendations on the types of data products and data discovery tools that could improve our understanding of biogenic methane processes, as well as discovery tools that could expand data accessibility to underserved communities. Could you talk a little bit about those recommendations?

We made specific recommendations on advanced machine learning and AI tools that could improve models for prediction and anomaly detection and also support the development of unbiased benchmarks. But our overarching recommendation when it came to data and discovery tools was that they be open-source and accessible to all and that engagement with marginalized communities be embedded in the design and implementation of research infrastructure. That is very important to ensure not only that underserved communities have equal access but also that leadership and ideas from underfunded communities and research scientists are integrated into the design of research tools, platforms, and models.

Q: The workshop also focused on physical infrastructure needs that would advance biogenic methane research. What are some of the current infrastructure challenges and how can they be overcome?

Physical infrastructure used in methane research, like eddy covariance flux towers, which measure greenhouse gas exchange between the land surface and the atmosphere, tends to be located in high-flux areas. Additionally, instruments have not been designed to measure weak emission and uptake signals at large scales. Overcoming these challenges would require more cross-agency communication and support at various government levels. 

Q: What are the next steps in this project and in advancing our understanding of biogenic methane fluxes?

There are a lot of exciting proposals that could improve our understanding of biogenic methane fluxes and, as a result, inform climate mitigation strategies, such as the Continental Methane Infrastructure (CMI). The CMI would leverage and augment the existing large-scale monitoring networks, including the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and AmeriFlux. One thing that has been and will continue to be critical to our project is the strong involvement of early-career researchers — not only do they bring fresh ideas, but early-career investigators are really the ones who are going to be using these systems and shaping this research for decades to come, so their participation now is essential.