Wetlands are the dominant natural source of atmospheric methane, a potent greenhouse gas which is second only to carbon dioxide in its importance to climate change. Anthropogenic climate change is expected to enhance methane emissions from wetlands, resulting in further warming. However, wetland methane feedbacks were not fully assessed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, posing a challenge to meeting the global greenhouse gas mitigation goals set under the Paris Agreement.
To understand how wetland methane cycling may evolve and drive climate feedbacks in the future, scientists are increasingly looking to Earth’s past.
"Ice core records indicate that atmospheric methane is very sensitive to climate, but we cannot measure atmospheric methane concentrations beyond them, prior to about 1 million years ago," said Dr Gordon Inglis, lead author and Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at the University of Southampton.
"Instead, we must rely on indirect ‘proxies’ preserved within the sedimentary record. Proxies are surrogates for climate variables that cannot be measured directly, including geochemical data stored in fossils, minerals or organic compounds."
The study, which was published in Geology , is the first to directly resolve the relationship between temperature and wetland methane cycling during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), an ancient warming event that could offer a glimpse into the future.
The authors used a geochemical tool developed at the University of Bristol to analyse organic compounds made by microbes living in ancient soils and peats. During the PETM, they found the ratio of two carbon isotopes changed in […]