Investigation of the Southern Methane Anomaly: causes, implications, and relevance to past global events.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Geography, Earth & Env Sciences

Abstract

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas and contributes to the atmospheric chemistry affecting ozone. Southern tropical methane sources and sinks constitute a significant component of the global methane budget. The current major anomaly in southern methane growth rate is among the largest on record. Yet despite its importance, tropical methane variability has received relatively little study. This proposal is to investigate the southern tropical methane budget. The work will improve quantification of southern tropical sources and the understanding of the mechanisms of sudden growth events.

Southern tropical methane sources are varied, each having their own isotopic signature in the methane they produce. Wetlands are very extensive in southern tropical S. America and in western parts of southern sub-equatorial Africa, but data on methane emissions from these wetlands are very sparse. Fires in savanna grasslands in Africa and S. America are also significant sources, as are the large ruminant animal populations. Anthropogenic sources are also increasing, with major recent hydrocarbon discoveries. Tropical OH is the major global methane sink.

Ascension Is. is a uniquely located, UK-administered, experimental site for studying the methane budget. At surface the air is almost always SE Trade wind, which arrives from the South Atlantic middle latitudes, and, after Ascension, becomes the background air for Amazonia. Above the trade wind inversion, the air over Ascension is tropical, its origin switching regularly between Africa and S. America. Currently Royal Holloway sustains continuous high-precision CH4 and CO2 measurement (CRDS instrument) and also flask measurement of d13C in CH4 on Ascension, as well as on E. Falkland Is. and on RRS JC Ross.

Methodologically, the project will focus on the measurement of methane in the southern tropics, carrying out campaign studies, especially on Ascension, and modelling the results. Measurement will include continuous measurement by CRDS in Ascension, E. Falklands, bi-annual Atlantic transects by RRS JC Ross, and Tedlar bag sample collection for CH4 and d13C of CH4 in Uganda, Peru and Bolivia. Campaign studies will include installation of a CRDS instrument in Peru and use of an unmanned aerial system (UAV) to sample above the Trade Wind Inversion on Ascension, as well as source campaigns to characterise d13C signatures of CH4 emissions in Africa and S. America. The proposed helicopter UAV deployment exploits new expertise and would represent an important UK deployment of a substantial UAV for atmospheric sampling. This deployment therefore addresses one of the key science challenges set out in the NERC scoping study for next-generation platforms for Earth & Environmental Science. Modelling studies are also state-of-the-art, and will include regional trajectory analysis to assess source inputs across Africa and S. America, and global modelling of d13C of CH4, tested against the measurements made in the project.

The results will be used to assess the importance of southern tropical methane in the global budget, the causes of rapid past changes, and the possibility of future rapid growth in emissions.

Planned Impact

This work will have impact for scientists, development thinkers, and policy makers. Better measurement of tropical emissions is vital for the scientific community who model greenhouse gas budgets, providing data in a globally important yet very little studied region, and quantifying regional CH4 fluxes. The work will provide understanding of the environmental health of wetland and savanna regions of southern tropical Africa and S. America. Such work feeds into policy, both in greenhouse gas negotiations and in development policy in Africa.

The Ascension and Falklands continuous high precision CH4 and CO2 measurement forms a contribution to UK national capability in greenhouse gas monitoring. These high-precision greenhouse gas measurement time series, which will otherwise be unfunded, will provide a vital input to global CH4 modelling. There is very limited greenhouse gas measurement in the southern tropics worldwide, and global greenhouse budget models are badly hampered by this lack. If the continuous Ascension and Falklands greenhouse gas time series are lost, global modelling as a whole will be made more difficult.

The data will input to global CH4 measurement, supporting the UN Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW), and will meet the UK's moral obligation in this large area in which the islands are UK owned. Data will be submitted to primary databases used by global greenhouse gas modellers, including the World Data Centre for Greenhouse Gases (WDCGG), one of the WDCs under the GAW programme.

Scientifically, sustaining improved CH4 budgets in the Southern Tropics and specific information for the South Atlantic will inform IPCC. UK government policy makers will be helped the better knowledge of global greenhouse gas budgets. More generally, installation of high-precision measurement capability on the JCR and the Atlantic network of stations will contribute greatly to NERC's charter task of measurement. Commercially the work will be of benefit to firms such as Earth Networks, that are building global greenhouse gas networks.

In terms of public benefit, we will work in collaboration with the National Schools Observatory (NSO) to promote understanding of greenhouse gas science in UK schools. The NSO currently has ~2000 registered schools engaging with young people at Key Stage 3 and 4. NSO will host a Greenhouse Gas Monitoring website that will (i) present Near-Real-Time CO2 and CH4 data from Ascension and Falklands monitoring stations, (ii) serve that data to registered school users and (iii) provide online tutorials to various public domain back-trajectory tools, information, and news that will enable schools to get the best use out of the data. NSO and Project partners will populate the website with background, historical plots, images, news, interviews etc. See: http://www.schoolsobservatory.org.uk/astro/tels/weather. This collaboration will support GCSE curriculum modules from various examination boards.

More generally, we will engage with journalists using our excellent existing links: for example, a recent paper by the PI on methane emission by dinosaurs was reported worldwide, and, more profoundly, a Royal Society Discussion meeting on Greenhouse Gases led to sustained media interest at the highest level not only in the UK but in the EU, US and worldwide.
 
Description This NERC project set out to understand the strong growth in atmospheric methane emissions that has taken place since 2007 in the Southern Hemisphere tropics. Since the project started, there has been a further rapid global rise in atmospheric methane, especially in the equatorial tropics. Ascension Island, a British island just south of the equator in the mid-Atlantic, is perfectly located to investigate the causes of the rise.

Air from tropical Africa and tropical South America passes over the island at altitudes above 1.5 km. By sampling this air with drones that can fly up into the tropical air masses, we can study the methane sources of a very wide region in Africa and South America. By analysing the carbon 13 in the methane, we will be able to understand where the methane is coming from. This is helping us to understand why the emissions are increasing.

See http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2015/august/sampling-over-ascension-island.html
Exploitation Route Scientific results on the global methane budget are in the literature now and being taken forward by this team and others in the field (Brownlow, R., D. Lowry, R. Thomas, R. Fisher, J. France, M. Cain, T. Richardson, C. Greatwood, J. Freer, J. A. Pyle, A. R. MacKenzie, and E. Nisbet, Methane mole fraction and d13C above and below the trade wind inversion at Ascension Island in air sampled by aerial robotics, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, 11,893-11,902, doi:10.1002/2016GL071155).
Funding to further develop and utilise the UAV and sensor technology is being sought.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment

URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bz-XB6Q9MI0
 
Description This award and subsequent doctoral training awards for the use of drones in environmental science have built connections with a network of small-to-medium businesses in the UK.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

 
Description Advanced Training Short Course
Amount £44,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/N019032/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2016 
End 03/2017
 
Description Advanced Training Short Course
Amount £22,219 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/M006573/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2014 
End 03/2015
 
Description Advanced Training Short Course
Amount £23,600 (GBP)
Funding ID Advanced Training Short Course 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2015 
End 03/2016
 
Description Advanced Training Short Course
Amount £73,157 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P020623/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 03/2019
 
Description Postgraduate and Professional Skills Development Awards
Amount £43,772 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 03/2014
 
Description Standard Grant
Amount £800,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/N003195/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 12/2018
 
Description Andrew Raven Trust weekend 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited guest and speaker ('The Challenges of Climate Change'), Andrew Raven Trust Annual Weekend Gathering in Morvern, Argyllshire 17-19 June 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Arts & Science Festival 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact University of Birmingham Arts & Science festival 2017. A Journey through deep time: plants, rocks, and carbon dioxide, public lecture, 16 March 2017.
The natural world, its biodiversity, and its constituent ecosystems are critically important to our wellbeing and economic prosperity. Trees and forests are a key link in the ecological chain that permits life to flourish on Earth.

World-leading 'big science' has come to the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR) in the form of a Free-Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) facility, built into established English woodland in Staffordshire. BIFoR aims to provide fundamental science, social science and cultural research of direct relevance to forested landscapes anywhere in the world.

Drawing from the Lapworth Museum of Geology's rich archive of geological specimens and maps, the Earth and Environmental Sciences team explore the geology of the BIFoR site, a journey marked by periods of major climatic change, which have shaped our planet over Deep Time.

Professor Rob MacKenzie, Director of Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), will also discuss BIFoR's scientific mission to understand and respond to the climatic changes unfolding before our eyes and its quest to answer the question: how will our forests respond to the atmosphere that will surround them in the year 2100?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://artsandsciencefestival.co.uk/festival-event/deep-time/
 
Description BBC Radio WM interview, March 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Rob Mackenzie was interviewed by BBC Radio West Midlands on 16 March 2017 on the subject of his presentation in the University of Birmingham Arts and Science festival: A Journey through Deep Tim: Plants, Rocks, and Carbon Dioxide. The interview included a question about President Trump's climate scepticism, which was countered with a response that not even the oil and gas sector supported hi statements.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description C&EN Article on environmental use of drones 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The field intensives in Ascension carried out as part of the Southern Methane Anomaly project were featured heavily (including a photograph of Ascension taken from the UAV) in an article in Chemical and Engineering News, a professional-practice journal of the American Chemical Society.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i9/drones-help-us-study-climate.html
 
Description Op-ed (Action on Air Quality: does the government get it?) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Editorial in the online _Birmingham Brief_ site, commenting on the UK government response to the Action on Air Quality report of its Environmental Audit Committee.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/thebirminghambrief/items/2015/03/air-quality-05-03-15.aspx
 
Description Op-ed (Trees and Air Quality) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact An editorial article for the online magazine _The Conversation_, providing an explanation of why recent academic research articles appear contradictory, attributing positive or negative influences of trees on urban air quality. The article was subsequently translated into French for the francophone version of the same magazine.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://theconversation.com/do-trees-really-help-clear-the-air-in-our-cities-48202
 
Description Op-ed (UK land-use) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Editorial essay commenting on two substantial contributions to the debate on how we use land in the UK; (i) the Best Use of UK Agricultural Land from the University of Cambridge's Natural Capital Leaders Platform; (ii) the UK National Ecosystem Assessment follow-on report, calling for an increase in UK forest land cover of 700,000 hectares to increase the quantity of natural benefits provided by the UK's land.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/thebirminghambrief/items/2014/07/finding-space-in-the-uk.aspx
 
Description Op-ed (emissions and the carbon cycle) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Article for the _Birmingham Brief_ online editorial website, on the science behind the BIFoR FACE (Birmingham Institute of Forest Research Free-Air CO2 Enrichment) facility.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/thebirminghambrief/items/2015/04/solid-air-16-04-15.aspx
 
Description Op-ed(Saharan dust) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Article for the online magazine _The Conversation_ on the contributions to wintertime particle matter exceedances, especially the contribution of long-range dust transport: "The particles big and small that make up 'Saharan smog' "

4 comments received.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://theconversation.com/the-particles-big-and-small-that-make-up-saharan-smog-25190
 
Description RGS CPD: Carbon and Water cycles 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Royal Geographical Society Continuing Professional Development for A-level Geography teachers: The Carbon and Water cycles, University of Birmingham, 16 March 2017. The session is supported by a podcast interview.

Subject knowledge update: Global environmental change
Dr Jerry Pritchard and Professor Rob MacKenzie, University of Birmingham
The FACE (Free Air Carbon Enrichment) experiment that the University of Birmingham's Institute of Forest Research
(BIFoR) has set up provides a unique window into the response of a landscape to changing atmospheric composition.
We will aim to deliver a range of material to support the teaching of A Level geography. The activities and information
presented will cover key areas of the A Level specifications including water and carbon cycles, landscape systems and
global systems.
A seminar presentation will introduce the inter-relationships between CO2, plans, soil, carbon and water cycles and
explain how the FACE facility can help us understand these issues. A short workshop will then explore the linkages
between current research areas and the teaching of A Level geography. This will be followed by a practical session.
Teachers will be able to circulate around three work stations, see the material demonstrated and talk through the
scientific and practical delivery implications with research staff in an informal setting. The resources for each practical
topic will be available to take away on a data stick for use in schools, including access to real-time online data streams.
The evening will also provide an opportunity for teachers and academics to discuss career pathways from the
geography A Level.
Dr Jerry Pritchard is the Director of Education for the College of Life and Environmental Sciences and a senior lecturer in
Biology at the University of Birmingham. Rob MacKenzie is a Professor of Atmospheric Science and has expertise in
computer simulation of atmospheric aerosol and the effects of vegetation on atmospheric composition.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.rgs.org/NR/rdonlyres/3DC36939-EF4E-4B0A-8075-374D69508077/28330/GlobalEnvironmentalChange...
 
Description Wild About Birmingham 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Emma Rosenfeld, Ian Thornhill and Rob MacKenzie helped Ignite, the young people's forum of ThinkTank, the Birmingham Science Museum, design a pop-up exhibition called Wild About Birmingham. ThinkTank Project Coordinator, Lynsey Fairweather, has produced a booklet about the project, outlining the project's trajectory and its impact. 2,800 visitors engaged with the exhibit over the 15 days it was on display. The young people gave 600 hours of voluntary time to the project.

The project shows the very significant impact that a small amount of input can have when channelled through expert facilitators such as ThinkTank. Feedback from the public included: "It shows maturity and enthusiasm and makes the museum more interesting", and "This just shows the imagination and creativity that young people have". A video of the young people's forum in conversation with the government's chief scientific advisor, Sir Mark Walport, and Prof Alice Roberts from the University of Birmingham, is available at http://youtu.be/_eh9pzNlvXU
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://youtu.be/_eh9pzNlvXU
 
Description media work (wintertime smog) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact April 2014, Professor Rob MacKenzie was interviewed by BBC Breakfast, BBC News Channel, BBC Radio 4's the Today programme, Sky News, Channel 5 News, BBC Radio West Midlands, and BBC Radio 4 Farming Today about the Saharan dust and other pollution that passed over the country. He also spoke to the New York Times and the National News Press Agency.

Public response seemed positive, as judged by comments from colleagues and friends.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014