Wetland methane emissions

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Contributing approximately 167 Tg of methane to the atmosphere per year[1]; wetlands are the largest natural source of atmospheric methane in the world, and therefore remain a major area of concern with respect to climate change.[2][3] Wetlands are characterized by water-logged soils and distinctive communities of plant and animal species that have evolved and adapted to the constant presence of water. This high level of water saturation creates conditions conducive to methane production.

Most methanogenesis, or methane production, occurs in oxygen-poor environments. Because the microbes that live in warm, moist environments consume oxygen more rapidly than it can diffuse in from the atmosphere, wetlands are the ideal anaerobic environments for fermentation as well as methanogen activity. However, levels of methanogenesis can fluctuate as it is dependent on the availability of oxygen, temperature of the soil, and the composition of the soil; a warmer, more anaerobic environment with soil rich in organic matter would allow for more efficient methanogenesis.[4]

Fermentation is a process used by certain kinds of microorganisms to break down essential nutrients. In a process called acetoclastic methanogenesis, microorganisms from the classification domain archaea produce methane by fermenting acetate and H2-CO2 into methane and carbon dioxide.

H3C-COOH → CH4 + CO2

Depending on the wetland and type of archaea, hydrogenotrophicc methanogenesis, another process that yields methane, can also occur. This process occurs as a result of archaea oxidizing hydrogen with carbon dioxide to yield methane and water.

4H2 + CO2 → CH4 + 2H2O

Natural progressions of wetlands[edit]

Many different kinds of wetlands exist, all characterized by unique compositions of plant life and water conditions. To list a few, marshes, swamps, bogs, fens, peatlands, muskegs, prairie pothole (landform),[5] and pocosins are all examples of different kinds of wetlands. Because each type of wetland is unique, the same characteristics used to classify each wetland can also be used to characterize the amount of methane emitted from that particular wetland. Any waterlogged environment with moderate levels of decomposition creates the anaerobic conditions needed for methanogenesis, but the amount of water and decomposition will affect the magnitude of methane emissions in a specific environment. For example, lower water tables can result in lower levels of methane emission because many methanotrophic bacteria require oxic conditions to oxidize methane into carbon dioxide and water. Higher water tables, however, result in higher levels of methane emission because there is less habitable area for methanotrophic bacteria to live, and thus the methane can more easily diffuse into the atmosphere without being broken down.

Often, the natural ecological progression of wetlands involves the development of one kind of wetland into one or several other kinds of wetlands. So over time, a wetland will naturally change the amount of methane emitted from its soil.

For example, Peatlands are wetlands that contain a large amount of peat, or partially decayed plant life. When peatlands are first developing, they often start out as fens, wetlands characterized by mineral rich soil. These flooded wetlands, with higher water tables, would naturally have higher emissions of methane. Eventually, the fens develop into bogs, acidic wetlands with accumulations of peat and lower water tables. With the lower water tables, methane emissions are more easily consumed by methanotrophic, or methane consuming, bacteria and never make it to the atmosphere. Over time, the peatlands develop and end up with accumulated pools of water, which once again increases emissions of methane.

Pathways of methane emission in wetlands[edit]

Once produced, methane can reach the atmosphere via three main pathways: molecular diffusion, transport through plant aerenchyma, and ebullition. Primary productivity fuels methane emissions both directly and indirectly because plants not only provide much of the carbon needed for methane producing processes in wetlands but can affect its transport as well.


Diffusion through the profile refers to the movement of methane up through soil and bodies of water to reach the atmosphere. The importance of diffusion as a pathway varies per wetland based on the type of soil and vegetation.[6] For example, in peatlands, the mass amount of dead, but not decaying, organic matter results in relatively slow diffusion of methane through the soil.[7] Additionally, because methane can travel more quickly through soil than water, diffusion plays a much bigger role in wetlands with drier, more loosely compacted soil.


plant aerenchyma
Plant-mediated methane flux through plant aerenchyma, shown here, can contribute 30-100% of the total methane flux from wetlands with emergent vegetation[8].

Plant aerenchyma refers to the vessel-like transport tubes within the tissues of certain kinds of plants. Plants with arenchyma possess porous tissue that allows for direct travel of gases to and from the plant roots. Methane can travel directly up from the soil into the atmosphere using this transport system.[7] The direct “shunt” created by the aerenchyma allows for methane to bypass oxidation by oxygen that is also transported by the plants to their roots.


Ebullition refers to the sudden release of bubbles of methane into the air. These bubbles occur as a result of methane building up over time in the soil, forming pockets of methane gas. As these pockets of trapped methane grow in size, the level of the soil will slowly rise up as well. This phenomenon continues until so much pressure builds up that the bubble “pops,” transporting the methane up through the soil so quickly that it does not have time to be consumed by the methanotrophic organisms in the soil. With this release of gas, the level of soil then falls once more.

Ebullition in wetlands can be recorded by delicate sensors, called piezometers, that can detect the presence of pressure pockets within the soil. Hydraulic heads are also used to detect the subtle rising and falling of the soil as a result of pressure build up and release. Using piezometers and hydraulic heads, a study was done in northern United States peatlands to determine the significance of ebullition as a source of methane. Not only was it determined that ebullition is in fact a significant source of methane emissions in northern United States peatlands, but it was also observed that there was an increase in pressure after significant rainfall, suggesting that rainfall is directly related to methane emissions in wetlands.[9]

Controlling factors on methane emission from wetlands[edit]

The magnitude of methane emission from a wetland are usually measured using eddy covariance, gradient or chamber flux techniques, and depends upon several factors, including water table, comparative ratios of methanogenic bacteria to methanotrophic bacteria, transport mechanisms, temperature, substrate type, plant life, and climate. These factors work together to effect and control methane flux in wetlands.

Overall the main determinant of net flux of methane into the atmosphere is the ratio of methane produced by methanogenic bacteria that makes it to the surface relative to the amount of methane that is oxidized by methanotrophic bacteria before reaching the atmosphere.[10] This ratio is in turn affected by the other controlling factors of methane in the environment. Additionally, pathways of methane emission affect how the methane travels into the atmosphere and thus have an equal effect on methane flux in wetlands.

Water table[edit]

The first controlling factor to consider is the level of the water table. Not only does pool and water table location determine the areas where methane production or oxidation may take place, but it also determines how quickly methane can diffuse into the air. When traveling through water, the methane molecules run into the quickly moving water molecules and thus take a longer time to reach the surface. Travel through soil, however, is much easier and results in easier diffusion into the atmosphere. This theory of movement is supported by observations made in wetlands where significant fluxes of methane occurred after a drop in the water table due to drought.[10] If the water table is at or above the surface, then methane transport begins to take place primarily through ebullition and vascular or pressurized plant mediated transport, with high levels of emission occurring during the day from plants that use pressurized ventilation.[10]


Temperature is also an important factor to consider as the environmental temperature—and temperature of the soil in particular—affects the metabolic rate of production or consumption by bacteria. Additionally, because methane fluxes occur annually with the seasons, evidence is provided that suggests that the temperature changing coupled with water table level work together to cause and control the seasonal cycles[11].

Substrate composition[edit]

The composition of soil and substrate availability change the nutrients available for methanogenic and methanotrophic bacteria, and thus directly affects the rate of methane production and consumption. For example, wetlands soils with high levels of acetate or hydrogen and carbon dioxide are conducive to methane production. Additionally, the type of plant life and amount of plant decomposition affects the nutrients available to the bacteria as well as the acidity. Plant leachates such as phenolic compounds from Sphagnum can also interact with soil characteristics to influence methane production and consumption[12]. A constant availability of cellulose and a soil pH of about 6.0 have been determined to provide optimum conditions for methane production and consumption; however, substrate quality can be overridden by other factors.[10] Soil pH and composition must still be compared to the effects of water table and temperature.

Net ecosystem production[edit]

Net ecosystem production (NEP) and climate changes are the all encompassing factors that have been shown to have a direct relationship with methane emissions from wetlands. In wetlands with high water tables, NEP has been shown to increase and decrease with methane emissions, most likely due to the fact that both NEP and methane emissions flux with substrate availability and soil composition. In wetlands with lower water tables, the movement of oxygen in and out of the soil can increase the oxidation of methane and the inhibition of methanogenesis, nulling the relationship between methane emission and NEP because methane production becomes dependent upon factors deep within the soil.

A changing climate affects many factors within the ecosystem, including water table, temperature, and plant composition within the wetland—all factors that affect methane emissions. However, climate change can also affect the amount of carbon dioxide in the surrounding atmosphere, which would in turn decrease the addition of methane into the atmosphere, as shown by an 80% decrease in methane flux in areas of doubled carbon dioxide levels.[10]

Human development of wetlands[edit]

Humans often drain wetlands in the name of development, housing, and agriculture. By draining wetlands, the water table is thus lowered, increasing consumption of methane by the methanotrophic bacteria in the soil.[10] However, as a result of draining, water saturated ditches develop, which due to the warm, moist environment, end up emitting a large amount of methane.[10] Therefore the actual effect on methane emission strongly ends up depending on several factors. If the drains are not spaced far enough apart, then saturated ditches will form, creating mini wetland environments. Additionally, if the water table is lowered significantly enough, then the wetland can actually be transformed from a source of methane into a sink that consumes methane. Finally, the actual composition of the original wetland changes how the surrounding environment is affected by the draining and human development.


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