Saturday, March 2, 2019

Methane Mania

When it comes to abrupt climate change, the ominous prospect of massive, sudden, catastrophic methane release from melting permafrost and explosive pingos is dramatic and daunting; meanwhile, a more humble but current source of dangerous intensification is flying under the radar even as it constitutes a profoundly existential threat.

On the first of March, the LA Times published a story about the recent accelerating increase of methane in the atmosphere which began to rise, after a lull, in 2007.  Fossil fuel burning and gas leakage results in "heavy" methane, and the research sought to but could not determine whether the rising percentage of "light methane" is accounted for by agricultural practices or natural processes. The scientists were also unable to conclude whether it could be attributed to a loss of atmospheric reactions that break down methane, although they do not believe it is from permafrost melt.
“It’s just such a confusing picture,” Rigby said. “Everyone’s puzzled. We’re just puzzled.”


This flurry of concern is due to the alarming fact that if this rise in methane is not properly identified so that it can be halted and reversed, there is no way to stay within even the dubious safe limits for temperature increase outlined in the Paris accords - no matter what is achieved by way of CO2 reductions - due to the much intensified impact methane provides as a greenhouse gas.

This research hardly began with that study in Global Biogeochemical Cycles; Fred Pearce summarized several similar avenues of pursuit in a 2016 e360Yale article which likewise conclude that the increase is due to microbial emissions as opposed to fossil fuel, biomass burning, or (so far) permafrost release.

Since I have been concerned for over ten years that trees of all species are dying prematurely, everywhere around the earth, from absorbing pollution - a global trend that is utterly ignored by climate scientists, foresters, and atmospheric physicists alike - it occurred to me that there might be a connection between the inability of scientists to account for increased methane and their universal ignorance of widespread forest decline due to ozone.

I remembered a 2012 study in the Yale Forest that found "outwardly" healthy but diseased trees were emitting methane in "flammable concentrations" - which they refused to acknowledge meant something was terribly awry even though this is a quote from the Yale newsletter article :

Diseased trees in forests may be a significant source of methane that causes climate change, according to a study by researchers at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) published in Geophysical Research Letters.


“If we extrapolate these findings to forests globally, the methane produced in trees represents 10 percent of global emissions,” said Xuhui Lee, a co-author of the study and the Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor of Meteorology at Yale. “We didn’t know this pathway existed.”

The trees producing methane are older — between 80 and 100 years old — and diseased. Although outwardly healthy, they are being hollowed out by a common fungal infection that slowly eats through the trunk, creating conditions favorable to methane-producing microorganisms called methanogens.

...and so I decided to see if anyone else had found similar results.

Google is such a good friend because it turns out that yes, yes indeed, other researchers have detected methane being emitted by trees, but their results are generally shrouded in obscurity.  This is what happens to ecological studies, in contrast to climate change research, due to deep-seated biases and consequent lack of funding.

A March 2017 article in Science Daily describes research of a plot in Maryland and proclaims:

A new study from the University of Delaware is one of the first in the world to show that tree trunks in upland forests actually emit methane rather than store it, representing a new, previously unaccounted source of this powerful greenhouse gas.


The other mechanism that could be causing methane fluxes from trunks is internal rotting or infection inside the tree, which produces an environment where methanogenic bacteria can survive and then methane diffuses out of the tree.
At this moment, the mechanisms of methane production in upland forests are not clear. Methane can be either transported from the soils upward inside the stem and diffused to the atmosphere or produced inside the stem by fungi or archaea -- single-celled microorganisms...
The research quoted above was published in the journal Ecosystems and has an extensive list of references.  Knowledge of this goes back to at least 1974 when the magazine Science published "Methane Formation in Living Trees: A Microbial Origin" which stated:

Visibly healthy hardwood trees located on poorly drained soils contained high pressures of methane. Heartwood from these trees was water-soaked, neutral to alkaline in pH, fetid in odor, and infested with a diverse population of obligately anaerobic bacteria. the bacterium responsible for methane formation in tree. was isolated and characterized as a member of the genus Methanobacterium.

In January, 2018, an article was published titled "Scientists were long baffled by a methane surplus in our atmosphere.  The culprit?  Trees"  about two studies of wetlands, one in the Brazilian Amazon and one in North Carolina, in which both find trees are significant sources of methane unaccounted for in climate budgets.  That wetlands produce methane is well known due to anaerobic conditions; other forests that are silently but inexorably dying are potentially a much vaster source.

In 2009, in Global Change Biology, the abstract for a study about ozone's impacts on trees said:

The northern hemisphere temperate and boreal forests currently provide an important carbon sink; however, current tropospheric ozone concentrations ([O3]) and [O3] projected for later this century are damaging to trees and have the potential to reduce the carbon sink strength of these forests...This implies that a key carbon sink currently offsetting a significant portion of global fossil fuel CO2 emissions could be diminished or lost in the future.

Between the loss of a critical CO2 sink, and the unmeasured increase of forest methane emissions, the ongoing massacre of trees will ensure the 6th mass extinction proceeds much faster than even the most dire expectations.  Methane-fueled wildfires will rage...and the scientists will continue to be puzzled.


30 comments:

  1. A significant part of the Amazon lowlands (and these stretch over 1000 miles upstream!) have seasonal cycles, where the base of the trees and around 30 ft of the trunk height are submerged half the year, then the water drops and the top roots are exposed. This is an entirely natural cycle. I would guess that the healthy trees don't have problems with anaerobic methanogenic bacteria?
    Lately, this cycle has been getting weaker. A few years ago the water didn't rise to its full height. The following year it didn't drop to its natural low level. I wonder if this is weakening the trees themselves, potentially increasing methane release?
    It's certainly worth studying, if anyone with the resources cares.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between ecologists who study trees and climate scientists who study atmospheric gases.

      Delete
  2. Very interesting, as usual, Gail. Glad to see you're still posting here albeit infrequently. Nonetheless, I'm wondering if your reported data might be connected with...

    'It eats everything'—the new breed of wildfire that's impossible to predict

    Excerpts...

    We're fighting a different kind of wildfire whose behaviour experts are struggling to predict.

    Climate change and negligent forest management are causing higher-intensity, faster-moving fires that can generate enough energy to evolve into erratic firestorms, known as pyroCbs, in the face of which first responders can do little.


    [Marc] Castellnou, who spoke about the future of fighting wildfires at the EU's security research event in December 2018, first joined the Catalan fire and rescue services as a seasonal firefighter when he was a teenager. In the past, he says, a fire that destroyed 25,000 hectares a day was considered extreme. According to his figures, the October fires in Portugal consumed 220,000 hectares of forest, an area 22 times the size of Lisbon and killed more than 40 people. Castellnou says that at their peak, wildfires burned at a rate of 10,000 hectares per hour over seven hours.

    "This is something that blew my mind and I cannot use technology to simulate that because models can't predict it," he said. The challenge is now predicting how they will behave, he says. "We're still not there. We're struggling."


    The linked article doesn't mention anything about tree-produced methane.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PS. You really "should"(?) see if you "stop" entire comments from appearing completely in "Bold." I'd be interested to know what, if anything, the "Blogger" SysOps replied to any query you have made (/ will make).

      Delete
    2. I have been wondering why the firefighters aren't more interested in the role of methane given the explosive growth of wildfires.

      Delete
    3. Sorry Colin, I looked around and I haven't found an option where I can control bolding of comments. Blogger is a hopelessly anachronistic platform and I keep getting warnings from google that features are going to be removed. Very annoying but I can't be bothered to figure it all out.

      Delete
  3. Gail, I'm planning to rebuild in Paradise and surroundings, where 18,000 houses burned down. We will be using all inert materials, but if the fire is hot enough the contents will ignite and burn anyway. Insurance companies won't give steel framing much of a break, but people are scared and are likely to rebuild with steel anyway. Next time you're out this way let's tour the area, I could learn a lot from you. Re your point about methane in tree trunks, you see hollowed out trees in that area when they are felled or burned. Not sure what the drivers are, though. Ozone, yeah, but also hotter microclimates from clearcutting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whenever there are news stories of trees falling from snow, ice, wind or some other proximate excuse, the photos show rotting interiors. Horrible fire in Paradise.

      Delete
  4. Must be tons of methane from trees here in deep southern Illinois because they are nearly all dying along Interstate 57 between Marion and Anna. I have never seen anything like it. Many of them are indeed in standing water. Just as many are not. We also have high ground-level ozone here and one of the worst coal power plants in the U.S. right on that section of highway, not to mention the RoundUp from the nearby fields. Getting hit with heat waves, ozone, and RoundUp - is it any wonder they are dying off like they have the Black Plague?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very interesting and insightful research, providing some clues as to why today's forest fires tend to be more intense. Thank you for seeing and reporting this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, thank you for your observant care.

      Delete
  6. Thank you Gail. Having read everything (?) you've written and shown about trees, ozone, et al, a certifiable curmudgeon cynic, such as myself, who has the gall to believe trees could actually be conscious, might conclude: If you poison the environment what other choice do the magnificent trees have but to finally let humans know: "Hey dudes, it's payback time!"

    ReplyDelete
  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  8. (No, I just tried to edit my comment)... A great post thank you so much. Methane and other biological distress is accelerating our demise. You have long pointed out that in the US, so much science is aimed at the commercial sciences, that we miss much of the risks uncovered by non-profit research. Too much denial and disavowal. It it weren't for all the suffering, these would be such enjoyable, interesting times.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm nearly 50 years old and I try to be careful about saying things like, "it used to be better." I don't want to sound like some middle aged man pining for the good ole days. This process happened slowly over the lifetimes of people my age, and we just didn't notice how extreme it was. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that the trees were far less lush and green than they once were. I can clearly remember Spring being vibrantly green, lush and WET! My wife and I watch a lot of documentaries filmed in the 90's. Both of us have noticed during scenes shot outside during Spring/early Summer, just how incredibly bright green everything was even then. I NEVER see Spring's like that anywhere these days. Everything looks brown, dry, and half dead!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know. I hate it when people recommend getting out into nature to feel better. They must be blind - nature is dying. It's like watching someone you love die of AIDS. Although I still love walking in the woods or along the ocean, I can't forget for a minute that the trees used to be magnificent and there used to be flocks of birds diving into the water. The color is gone in the autumn as well, everything just turns brown instead of brilliant reds, oranges and gold. As well as remembering the difference, it's definitely apparent when comparing old films - and the flip side, which is almost funny, is that whenever I see a current movie or commercial, they just can't find an outdoor location for filming that doesn't have dead trees.

      Delete
  11. I always feel less alone when you post. Love from Sydney

    ReplyDelete
  12. What I find really interesting is this constant repetition of, "we have 10 years to fix claimant change." I see those words on almost every climate change blog. I have repeatedly pointed people to the 1989 UN report that said the exact same thing! In 1989 in the UN said that within 10 years climate change would be out of human control. If it was out of human control in 1999, how is it possible to change it now?

    https://www.apnews.com/bd45c372caf118ec99964ea547880cd0

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ikr? Like, it's ALWAYS five minutes to midnight. You might get a kick out of a post from 2018: "I've been waiting in vain for an answer to a letter I sent to Dr. Corinne Le Quéré which said, in part... "...since that article was from 2009 before Copenhagen, and Copenhagen obviously did fail, do you currently think this statement holds? "Professor Le Quéré said that Copenhagen was the last chance of coming to a global agreement that would curb carbon-dioxide emissions on a time-course that would hopefully stabilise temperature rises to within the danger threshold. 'The Copenhagen conference next month is in my opinion the last chance to stabilise climate at [2]C above pre-industrial levels in a smooth and organised way,' she said."

      "'If the agreement is too weak, or the commitments not respected, it is not 2.5C or 3C we will get: it's 5C or 6C – that is the path we're on. The timescales here are extremely tight for what is needed to stabilise the climate at [2]C,' she said."

      http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2013/02/mass-extinctiona-burgeoning-meme.html

      Delete
  13. Climate not "claimant" Damn autocorrect!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's contagious lol. Great link https://www.apnews.com/bd45c372caf118ec99964ea547880cd0

      Delete
    2. I piss off a lot of people with that link!

      Delete
    3. I'm having a lot of fun with it on twitter!

      Delete
    4. People really don't know how to react. They tell us to trust the science, trust the reports, then start making excuses when you present them with things like this. Those in power have just been crossing their fingers, hoping things wouldn't get too bad. Now the game is to keep people in a constant state of distraction, in hopes they won't notice all floods, wildfires, dead trees, heatwaves, etc. I know people who live in California and they are in a state of total denial. They think these things are just temporary, and don't yet realize this is the new normal.

      Delete
    5. Haha! "The death of trees and shrubs is so blatantly egregious that I simply do not understand what sort of collective insanity allows the residents of this state to go about their daily routines without pausing to reflect on the implications of the ecosystem collapsing in front of their very eyes." ~ yours truly in California, July 2010, in The Widening Gyre." http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2015/08/collective-insanity.html

      Delete
  14. You seem like one of the few people who really get what's happening. The issues are really simple. There is no way to remove the existing CO2 from the atmosphere, including the increase in CO2 already baked into the cake. It is possible to reduce emissions, but we haven't so far and there is little evidence that we will. The egghead crowd can't see the forest for the trees. Before I even learned about climate change, I spent years reading philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. After giving up on the idealism of my youth, I became obsessed with why humans behave the way they do. Being raised Christian, I had a pretty inaccurate model. Only those who truly understand human nature, will realize that we will never do all the things necessary to fix climate change. Humans will only make changes that increase their standard of living, and will never voluntarily reduce it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I once believed in progress. I thought education was key, so I worked for a school for underprivileged kids in Newark. But I have since learned that progress is a mirage and a fraud, which exists only as humans blindly use cheap energy to improve standards of behavior. It's only temporary. I suppose the right response is to be grateful to live in times of such abundance but knowing the price makes it difficult to enjoy.

      Delete

Blog Archive

Follow by Email

My Blog List

Search This Blog

Followers

counter