Methane Production in the Arctic: Under-recognized Cold Season and Upland Tundra - Arctic Methane Sources-UAMS

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


In this project, we will use state of the art approaches and knowledge to better understand the current patterns of and controls on methane (CH4) release from the Arctic to the atmosphere and to improve major models to better simulate future releases of CH4 from the Arctic as the planet warms. Atmospheric methane (CH4) is the second most important greenhouse gas (after CO2) that has strong anthropogenic origins. High northern latitude terrestrial ecosystems account for ca. 50% of extra-tropical biogenic wetland emissions. More importantly methane emissions from the Arctic could increase dramatically in the future. The very large organic carbon stocks (>1,300 GtC) in the top 3 m of Arctic soils and the rapid climate change experienced and predicted in the Arctic, results in a very real possibility of large biogenic CH4 release from these soils in this century. Despite the importance of CH4 fluxes from the Arctic, now and in the future, biogenic and total natural CH4 emissions are poorly understood and very poorly modelled (Fisher et al., 2014).

In 2013, we updated five eddy covariance (EC) towers in Arctic Alaska to operate reliably year-round and measure CH4 fluxes. Initial measurements yielded two unexpected and highly significant findings: 1) cold season CH4 emissions account for >50% of annual emissions and 2) drier upland tundra are larger emitters of CH4 than wetter inundated tundra (Zona et al 2016 PNAS). These observations and processes are not now incorporated in leading global land-surface/carbon-cycle models used to calculate current and predict future CH4 emissions from the Arctic. Verifying this new understanding and incorporating this understanding into models used in the UK and elsewhere will revolutionize our ability to accurately calculate and model terrestrial CH4 fluxes. These results, if supported by the outputs of this project, are critical to verifying current baseline emissions, detecting a changing baseline, and for predicting, with confidence, biogenic CH4 emissions from the Arctic in the future. This project has two overarching objectives: (1) determining the patterns of, controls on, and importance of cold season and upland tundra in Arctic CH4 emissions; (2) incorporating this understanding into JULES, LPJ and TCF, thus significantly improving our ability to estimate current and predict future CH4 fluxes in the Arctic. This work is expected to impact policy through new information and model development, reported through conferences and publications and referenced in upcoming IPCC reports. In the project, we will continue year-round observation of methane release to the atmosphere, and the atmospheric and soil environment that corresponds to these fluxes. We will initiate new experiments and observations to understand the processes and conditions controlling the observed CH4 fluxes including a new system of measurement of CO2, CH4, and 222Rn concentrations that allow autonomous, year-round, determination of CH4 production, consumption, and flux by soil depth and snow layer. We will measure year-round [CH4] and d13CH4 will help identify the importance of methane oxidation in surface soil layers at different locations and seasons. And we will determine the role of GPP in controlling rates of CH4 production. We will also determine the importance of vascular plants in providing a conduit for CH4 produced at depth, to escape to the atmosphere past an oxidizing surface layer.

This new information will inform model development and improvement of models used by the Arctic community. Performance of these models will verified with unique data sets not used in model development. As a result, we intend UAMS to have a major impact on the communities' ability to calculate current and to predict with confidence future Arctic CH4 emissions in a changing world and thereby better inform policy decisions.

Planned Impact

Knowledge of the impact of climate change and rising atmospheric [CO2] on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (especially of CO2 and CH4) is critical for setting targets for GHG emission reductions and to identify and promote mitigation strategies. The overarching aim of this project is to fill a major gap in knowledge and answer the question:

"What is the effect of climate change on CH4 fluxes from tundra ecosystems"? The information acquired by the field observations, will be used to test and refine models describing the response of the tundra C balance and GHG fluxes to climate warming. This will allow the models used to be improved, better constrained, and will thereby improve confidence in predictions of future responses. The new understanding will be build into the UK community model (JULES) and code made available to other land surface models. Overall, this project is critical to refining predictions of future feedbacks from the Arctic with anticipated global warming, and better inform policy on the sensitivity of the substantial C pool of arctic permafrost soils to climate change.


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Title Native children's view of Climate Change in the Arctic 
Description Our team worked with the Ukpeagvik Iñupiat Corporation (UIC), an Alaska Native Corporation which provides social and economic resources to over 2,900 Iñupiat shareholders, and their descendants. The collaboration with UIC has given us a good understanding of how to reach the local communities and involve them in our research. One of scientists in our team (David Lipson) and an artist (Kim Reasor) engaged fifth grade children in Utqiagvik and helped them to communicate to the rest of the world, in an emotionally resonant way, the direct impacts of climate change on their families in this Arctic region. Lipson, Reasor, and an outreach specialist (Erickson) of Inupiat heritage from a village in Alaska worked with four 5th grade classes of about 25 students each at Fred Ipalook Elementary in Utqiagvik, AK. The result was a poster showing historical and projected Arctic sea ice cover, with 100 beautiful paintings by children of things that are dear to them about their home being squeezed into a smaller region as the sea ice cover diminishes. The team scanned all the artwork to make a digital version of the poster and left the original with the school. These materials were converted into an interactive webpage where viewers can click on the individual painting for detail and get selected recordings of the children's statements about their artwork. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact Subsistence hunting of marine mammals associated with sea ice is central to the Inupiat way of life. Furthermore, their coastal homes and infrastructure are increasingly subject to damage from increased wave action on ice-free Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. While the people of this region are among the most directly vulnerable to climate change, the subject is not often discussed in the elementary school curriculum. Meanwhile, in many other parts of the world, the impacts of climate change are viewed as abstract and remote. This activity served as a nucleus for communicating to other classes and adults about the real impacts of climate change in people's lives, in a variety of schools in Alaska and contributed to better understanding of the impact of climate change on the daily lives of native communities. 
Description We discovered a significantly latter soil freezing over the last 15 years that was associated with higher methane emissions. This matches NOAA observations for atmospheric methane and apparent Arctic biospheric controls on atmospheric methane.

High resolution temperature measurement for active layer depth, water table, permafrost, snow depth, permafrost, and zero curtain. Diffusivity system for measuring CO2, CH4 soil concentrations and fluxes. Fall CO2 emissions and controls by summer GPP and zero curtain extent and duration.

During the last summer season (2018) we initiated the collection of isotope data in Barrow and Atqasuk using a 24 hours sampling. The samples were shipped from Alaska to the Uk, and are currently being analyzed.
Exploitation Route Broad application of technology. Broad application of results to modeling.
Sectors Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Scientific Advisory panel of the CMCC Foundation
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Walter Oechel was invited to join the Scientific Advisory panel of the CMCC Foundation, which supports modelling effort to refine the impact of climate change on ecosystems.
Description Horizon 2020 project: INTAROS Proposal full title: Integrated Arctic Observation System Proposal acronym: INTAROS Topic: H2020-BG-09-2016 An integrated Arctic Observation System (2016)
Amount € 528,752 (EUR)
Funding ID Grant Agreement Number: 727890 
Organisation European Commission H2020 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 04/2018 
End 02/2022
Title High temporal and spatial temperature measurement for determine the position and extent of the zero curtain, water table, snow depth, permafrost level, active layer depth. 
Description High speed, high resolution thermocouple air, water, soil, snow temperature measurement recorded at 1 hz. 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Better resolution of zero curtain, snow depth, water table, active layer, permafrost position and duration. 
Title Data Base at SDSU 
Description Near real time data available on line form SDSU 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Numerous publications and model improvement. 
Description Collaboration with NOAA 
Organisation National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration
Country United States 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We are sharing data with NOAA to help help them interpret the atmospheric trace gas signal. New Collaborators added in 2021.
Collaborator Contribution NOAA GMD is providing technical support at our CMDL site in Barrow Alaska. NOAA EPP is providing support for students, travel, and research support for this project.
Impact Jointly published papers with NOAA personnel.
Start Year 2016
Description Data Reduction of long term Eddy Covariance Record 
Organisation National Research Council
Department Institute of Biometeorology (IBIMET)
Country Italy 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Cleaned, gap filled, Burba Collected data.
Collaborator Contribution Gap filling, Data Cleaning, Burba Correction.
Impact Manuscript in preparation.
Start Year 2020
Description BARC science fair (1-3 August 2018) and to the Atqasuk Community Meeting (11 June, 2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact In order to encourage the involvement of the local community with our research, we presented our research plans and results to the BARC science fair (1-3 August 2018) and to the Atqasuk Community Meeting (11 June, 2018). These were great opportunities for the scientists to explain in simple terms what are they researching in the Arctic, why the locals should care, and what the greater implications of their science results are for society. The fair gathered about 200-300 people from Utqiagvik, in northern Alaska, and the Atqasuk community meeting gathered about 80 people including locals (entire families joined the fair and the community meeting including elders and children), and scientists from a wide range of institutions across the world (US, Canada, Germany, etc.). In the science fair D. Zona discussed the importance of CH4 emissions and explained in simple terms the processes occurring during the cold period and what "zero curtain" is, and why an integrative approach to science is vital in understanding the complex impact of climate change on arctic ecosystems. D. Zona was also interviewed by a reporter (working for AccuWeather) and showed the reporter one of the research sites in Utqiagvik, describing how the instruments work, and what the importance of our research is for society.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018