Methane at the edge: jointly developing state-of-the-art high-precision methods to understand atmospheric methane emissions.

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Methane emissions are a global problem, but much of the research focusses on Europe, North America and Australasia where the main research groups are based. Many areas are poorly studied. More interaction and intercalibration of laboratory measurement and field techniques between the main research centres is required to provide comparable data across these regions. Additionally emissions of greenhouse gases from China have risen rapidly over the past decade, but the sources of methane are not well quantified. Three areas of international collaboration have been identified that aim to improve interaction and apply new knowledge and techniques to a new measurement site in Hong Kong.
Methane, which is the second-most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, is produced by a wide variety of sources, ranging from gas leaks from natural gas and coal extraction and processing, to cows and agricultural sources, to natural wetlands and fires. The carbon isotopic ratio in methane emissions varies greatly depending on the source, from typically 'heavy' (richer in 13C) in combustion sources and many natural gasfield leaks, to typically 'light' in northern wetland emissions. This isotopic signature provides a method of idetifying methane sources in air arriving at remote sites and in mixed plumes from densely-populated urban centres.
This proposal has three linked pump-priming components to help us measure methane emissions and understand them better. The first part is to link the isotopic measurements made in the UK and Europe much more closely with the measurements made by the US NOAA/INSTAAR consortium, who are world leaders in this work. In particular by intercomparing gas standards we can come to a common calibration, and thus produce a linked data set of background stations.
Secondly, the work will link UK work with the Australian CSIRO group who are among the leading experts at field measurement using mobile vehicle-mounted systems. This will be particularly useful in skills transfer in studying sources such as gas wells (including fracking), coal mines, landfills and cow barns.
Finally, as a proof of concept study, we will collaborate with the University of Hong Kong on a field test of the new methodologies. We intend to set up a measurement station on the extreme SE tip of the island, and sample winter north easterly air with back-trajectories, that has travelled along the Chinese coast from Shanghai, and before that from extreme NW China, where NOAA/INSTAAR have a long-running measurement time series. In summer the reverse flow occurs. In this way we can investigate if it is possible to quantify Chinese emissions of methane and find the isotopic signature of the source mix as it changes over the winter season.

Planned Impact

This is a small pump-priming proposal but it should have significant impact in the wide sectors of private industry and government.

By making considerable improvements in the seamlessness of the global methane isotopic data set in collaboration with INSTAAR, the work will help greatly in modelling global methane budgets. This is of great interest to government officials concerned with global change, as it will help in determining the sources of emissions that are driving the ongoing shifts in the global methane budget. If the global isotopic budget is indeed trending 'light', as the data may show, is this driven by warmth and increased rainfall in response to climate change? Can the isotopic results help in assessing the scale of leakage from industry and commercial activities?

On the finer scale, the local high-precision measurement skills that will come from the collaboration with CSIRO will be very helpful to industry, in finding gas leaks and emissions, and in developing strategies to reduce them (e.g. fixing leaks; covering landfills in a more targeted way).

The work on China's emissions will be useful both regionally and globally, and also for local efforts in Hong Kong to cut emissions, and to separate its own emissions from those blowing in from the rest of China.

More generally, there is very wide public interest in methane budgets, and the public impact of the results from better skills and methods to measure methane emissions will be considerable. Both in the Arctic and the tropics, methane emissions are of much public concern, and this pump priming work will set us on the pathway to finding answers.


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Description Global intercomparision of methane isotopic standards is much needed in order to support global methane budget models: this project is making a major contribution to that goal. The work in Hong Kong has helped assess Chinese emissions, in devising methane reduction strategies in large cities, and also in identifying major source isotope signatures. The US collaboration has led to major progress in global isotope intercomparison between our group and the main labs measuring 13C in CH4. The Australian collaboration has led to significant insights into unconventional gas and coalfield emissions, large cattle lot emissions, as well as advances in water contamination studies.
Exploitation Route Methane budget modellers need to use isotopes to constrain sources - they can't until there is global intercomparison of measurements. The unconventional gas studies are very relevant to fracking evaluation.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Other

Description The work is helping to set up a global intercomparison of methane isotopic standards for atmospheric measurements, contributing to the work of the UN WMO/IAEA Global Atmospheric Watch. It was discussed and reported at the UN WMO/IAEA Greenhouse Gas Measurement and Techniques meeting, La Jolla, 2015. The project has also led to the initiation of continuous high precision greenhouse gas measurement at Cape d'Aguilar, SE Hong Kong, to track Chinese emissions.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Hong Kong Univ. Methane sampling 
Organisation University of Hong Kong
Department Swire Institute of Marine Science
Country Hong Kong 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Analysis of air samples : atmospheric methane emissions from China
Collaborator Contribution Regular sampling - collection of air
Impact Measurement time series.
Start Year 2015
Description Award winner, 'The Engineer'/EPSRC Collaborate to Innovate awards. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Award winner, The Engineer, Innovation prize
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description BBC World Service documentary - radio. "Discovery - cheating the atmsophere" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Participation in BBC World Service documentary "Disocvery - cheating the atmosphere". Long interview on the problems of assessing greenhouse gas emissions inventories for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - Paris Agreement. Broadcast several times in second week of Dec, 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description LONCON3 World Science fiction convention 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Several Activities - all invited.
1. Exhibition of methane measurement "Discover your inner cow" sampling methane in breath.
2. Panel discussion on climate in science fiction
3. Panel discussion on sci fiction and policy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description NERC UnEarthed Showcase 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact NERC UnEarthed Showcase event, Edinburgh. MOYA presentation on the Global methane budget, focussed on school age students. ~7000 schoolchildren and many members of the general public. 17,18,19 and 20 Novermber 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Royal Holloway Science festival 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Several activities - all coordinated by us;
1. fossil trail
2. Volcano exhibit and eruption
3. lecture
4. Gold panning
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015