The heartbreak of ethanes

From the National Science Foundation

Ethane levels yield information about changes in greenhouse gas emissions

Research at Greenland and Antarctic shows decline in methane and ethane levels

Researchers sample ice to investigate the history of fossil-fuel emissions of methane, based on measurements of another hydrocarbon, ethane, in air trapped in the polar ice sheets in Antarctica. The ancient air resides close to the surface, within the perennial snowpack, and can be used to study changes in the atmosphere that occurred during the twentieth century. Credit: National Science Foundation

Recent data from NSF-funded research in both Greenland and Antarctica demonstrate that fossil-fuel related emissions of both methane and ethane, two of the most abundant hydrocarbons in the atmosphere, declined at the end of the twentieth century, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The causes of the decline in methane emission rates to the atmosphere have been puzzling scientists for some time. This new study shows that a change in human activities may have played a key role in the recent leveling off of methane, which, being a potent greenhouse gas contributes to global temperatures.

Murat Aydin from the University of California, Irvine is the lead author of the paper. Other researchers include Kristal Verhulst, Eric Saltzman, Donald Blake, Qi Tang, and Michael Prather from UCI, Mark Battle from Bowdoin College, and Stephen Montzka from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The team investigated the history of fossil-fuel emissions of methane, based on measurements of another hydrocarbon, ethane, in air trapped in the polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. The ancient air resides close to the surface, within the perennial snowpack, and can be used to study changes in the atmosphere that occurred during the twentieth century.

“Fossil fuels are a common source of both ethane and methane. Methane has many other sources, but we know most of the ethane in the atmosphere today is from fossil fuels. If ethane changes, it is easier to figure out the cause” said Aydin. “After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas. This research was conducted to track ethane and to see what it could tell us about methane. We found that ethane emissions declined at the same time as the rise in methane dramatically slowed, suggesting a common cause.” At the end of the 20th century, methane and ethane were deemed valuable energy resources; collected and consumed as natural gas they are converted to carbon dioxide. The researchers’ results for this time frame indicate that the leveling off in atmospheric methane in recent years is likely linked to this change in energy use.

“This research helps explain why atmospheric methane levels stabilized at the end of the twentieth century” said co-author Eric Saltzman. “Methane levels are important for global climate and understanding how human activities affect methane is a key part of predicting how much warming we may expect in the future.”

“We still have more research to conduct, but this discovery is significant to our efforts in determining the link between ethane and methane and what it may tell us about climate change,” said Julie Palais, NSF program director. “We must work together to continue to find ways to further our research on this very important subject.”

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51 thoughts on “The heartbreak of ethanes

  1. Looks like they’re casting about for other greenhouse gasses for which to continue their grant procurements.

  2. Send this team some more money and let thyem know that if they can prove the trend continues over the next few years the grant will be doubled with bonuses.

  3. About ten years ago someone bought my teenage son a fascinating poster for Christmas.
    It showed the distribution of light ‘pollution’ across the planet at night.
    I could see the great cities, the brilliant glow from Europe, the US eastern seaboard, Japan etc,
    I noted the darkness over poorer countries like india, and of course the great empty regions of the earth. But something about a vast area of equatorial west Africa puzzled me. I knew that it was poor and underdeveloped and that much of it comprised of dense jungle…yet it glowed as brightly as a middle sized Westernized country…
    They ‘flared off’ the gas back in those days. It was a merely a ‘nuisance’ when oil was 45 dollars a barrel. It’s worth a little bit more now I think!

  4. Look, methane is in the ppb and CO2 in ppm. At 1775 ppb, methane is 220 times less abundant than CO2. And at 20X better as a heat-trapping gas, that’s 1/220 x 20 = 1/11 of the effect of CO2. As CO2 may be responsible for only 3% of heat-trapping activity, that puts methane at 0.25% of the warming ability. We worry about this?

    This is about as meaningless as meaningless can get! Why are they wasting so much time and money studying a non-issue. Of course, it’s just another chance to blame climate change (aka global warming) on man. Since we are cooling, it’s a true waste of resources. I want my money back!

    We are cooling. Green the planet, release as much CO2 and methane as you can!

    And ethane is as 0.5 ppb. If they worry about it, they are true idiots.

    ““We must work together to continue to find ways to further our research on this very important subject.””

    NO, WE DON’T! It’s interesting but not all that important. To their grant,yes. To the world, NO!

  5. I agree with Steve R. But, if you find evidence that says fossil fuel use should be declining, and it contradicts the CO2 data that says we are still adding CO2 to the atmosphere at a constant(ish) rate, this presents a problem for something. I can’t wait to check in here tomorrow and see what comments have been made.

  6. Doing a physical experiment to determine the recent history of ethane levels is a valuable and valid contribution to science. I can’t believe people are objecting to this. What – you’d rather not know what ethane has been up to? Please save the cynicism and negativity for when it is needed. This research is not deserving of being treated in this manner.

  7. Seems to support the idea that human activity can have a profound influence on atmospheric composition and climate. What’s up with that?

  8. The comments so far have missed the point: a possible (and most likely) explanation for the ethane trends is that (waste) gas emissions from gas/oil production have declined in the last 10 years or so as producers find a market increase for the “waste” natural gas and become more adept at capturing, transporting and storing natural gas. In this study, ethane was used as the tracer gas providing a synoptic signal that could be studied and analyzed. Irrespective of whether you find sufficient evidence for global climate change in other measurements, the fact that a detectable signal of the global trends in the gas/oil production, methods and markets can be found and easily measured in the Antarctic should surely be of interest to all with inquiring minds that need to know.

  9. “After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas.

    Really ?
    What happened to that nasty H2O (vapour) pollution ( 10x the power of CO2 ) ?

    I guess it depends on your definition of ‘important’, ie: scientific or political :)

  10. “After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas.”

    One day maybe they will redescover that they should say;

    “After water vapour and secondly carbon dioxide, methane is the third most important greenhouse gas.”

  11. An_Inquiring_Mind says:
    August 15, 2011 at 10:47 pm
    The comments so far have missed the point: a possible (and most likely) explanation for the ethane trends is that (waste) gas emissions from gas/oil production have declined in the last 10 years or so as producers find a market increase for the “waste” natural gas and become more adept at capturing…

    —————-

    But the waste gas was never just released into the atmosphere, it was flared. Marketting of gas instead of flaring it would have no effect on the concentrations of Ethane in the atmosphere.

  12. Our production of petroleum reduces reservoir pressures and would result in a reduction of hydrocarbon gases leaking to the surface though leaky reservoir seals. Since the shallowest reserves are generally the easiest to find and produce they were exploited first and were the greatest source of natural surface leakage. The hypothesis is that production of petroleum has reduced the natural leakage of hydrocarbon gases to the surface because of reduced reservoir pressures and lower atmospheric concentrations of hydrocarbon gases are a possible result.

  13. higley7 says:
    August 15, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Lets stop all research in to anything that Higley doesn’t find important then. You hear that researchers, you need approval from Higley first!
    /sarc

    Get a grip!

  14. I thought water was the “most important” greenhouse gas.
    No doubt I need to go back to school, maybe to sit under Mr. Aydin so that he can re-educate me. (AKA brainwashing.)

  15. I would have thought that published financial records would provide you with all the information that inquiring minds need to know about gas and oil production.

  16. Maybe a silly question but does it make a difference to the atmosphere if the gases are burnt off immediately or stored briefly only to be burnt off in millions of homes distributed about the planet?

  17. Methane has a trivial GHG effect, not 20X CO2. To get that number, they “count” the H2O resulting from burning. Lies, all the way down.

  18. John.
    Co2 is a product of combustion, it matters not where it came from or at what point it is released into the atmosphere. Some believe that it causes global warming but considering it presently comprises 1/25 of ONE PERCENT of the atmosphere it would be necessary to abolish the laws of physics for this to be true.
    Keep warm!

  19. There’s also been a significant increase in the sequestration of Landfill Gas, which may also have some effect. What I don’t like about this study is the immediate rush to assume that it must be something humans are doing. Aren’t our emissions totally swamped by what occurs naturally? Was any effort made to find a natural reason for this reduction first?

    Once again, we seem to be putting the cart before the horse, and not defining what should occur naturally first before working out the role played by us.

  20. Lazytweener;
    Warming would impact Africa etc. through changes in precipitation and cloudiness. Temperature, not so much. The tropical zone is very stable (the flip side of the high variability of the poles and higher latitudes).

  21. SteveE says:
    August 16, 2011 at 12:29 am
    An_Inquiring_Mind says:
    August 15, 2011 at 10:47 pm
    The comments so far have missed the point: a possible (and most likely) explanation for the ethane trends is that (waste) gas emissions from gas/oil production have declined in the last 10 years or so as producers find a market increase for the “waste” natural gas and become more adept at capturing…

    —————-

    But the waste gas was never just released into the atmosphere, it was flared. Marketting of gas instead of flaring it would have no effect on the concentrations of Ethane in the atmosphere.

    Makes sense to me

  22. John asks “Maybe a silly question but does it make a difference to the atmosphere if the gases are burnt off immediately or stored briefly only to be burnt off in millions of homes distributed about the planet?”

    The difference is that the capture/recovered methane is being used in place of some other fuel, so the total consumption is lower.

    It’s similar to the way that use of electricity generated by a nuclear power plant can reduce GHG emissions through substitution for a higher emissions energy source.

  23. Didn’t we get serious about auto and smoke stack pollution in the 70s – 80s? Both sources became dramatically more efficient, thus lower emissions of unburned gasses.

  24. I guess it’s not possible to even hypothesize that methane level changes could have natural causes? That would be way to wild!

  25. SteveE says:
    August 16, 2011 at 12:29 am

    An_Inquiring_Mind says:
    August 15, 2011 at 10:47 pm
    The comments so far have missed the point: a possible (and most likely) explanation for the ethane trends is that (waste) gas emissions from gas/oil production have declined in the last 10 years or so as producers find a market increase for the “waste” natural gas and become more adept at capturing…

    —————-

    But the waste gas was never just released into the atmosphere, it was flared. Marketting of gas instead of flaring it would have no effect on the concentrations of Ethane in the atmosphere.
    ====================
    yes, and then what about the supposed massive methane pouring out of the tundra lately??
    and the undersea methane, said by some to be increasing also after the gulf oil biffo as well?
    if the gas was/is flared or combusted however..cars whatever..then it isnt methane ethane , is it its co2 and..other goop.as burning byproducts.

  26. So, essentially, they think there might be a link between ethane and methane but they don’t know what that link would mean or how lower levels is linked to global warming. Please leave more money on your way out.

    Who, exactly, uses methane in a greenhouse?

  27. Ian H says:
    August 15, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Please save the cynicism and negativity for when it is needed. This research is not deserving of being treated in this manner.

    Ok, let’s review:
    “This research helps explain why atmospheric methane levels stabilized at the end of the twentieth century” said co-author Eric Saltzman. “Methane levels are important for global climate and understanding how human activities affect methane is a key part of predicting how much warming we may expect in the future.”

    This is nothing but CAGW-inspired government-funded junk science. It has an overall purpose, but that purpose is not science-driven, but rather agenda-driven.

    “We still have more research to conduct, but this discovery is significant to our efforts in determining the link between ethane and methane and what it may tell us about climate change,” said Julie Palais, NSF program director. “We must work together to continue to find ways to further our research on this very important subject.”

    Ethane declined while methane rise leveled off, a mere correlation. Even if there was any sort of actual link, it would tell us absolutely nothing about climate change, except in the fevered brains of hysterical climate bedwetters. And, of course, we have the inevitable; the mandatory grant-grubbing plea for “more research needed”. Pathetic.

  28. steven mosher says:
    quote
    Ian H.
    Ya you can usually count on a few stock responses.
    unquote

    Mosh, have you read the paper that predicted a methane blip from the tundra when the effects of acid rain wore off? I can’t find it, but trust me, there was this forecast. As for ethane being solely an anthropogenic marker, I’d get a bit of melting permafrost and test for that before I made such an unequivocal statement.

    JF
    (who wonders if the North Sea spills are devouring clouds yet….)

  29. ozspeaksup says:
    ====================
    yes, and then what about the supposed massive methane pouring out of the tundra lately??
    and the undersea methane, said by some to be increasing also after the gulf oil biffo as well?
    if the gas was/is flared or combusted however..cars whatever..then it isnt methane ethane , is it its co2 and..other goop.as burning byproducts
    ——-
    Yes, what about it? Not sure what you mean about the “gulf oil biffo” though… Could you explain? By undersea methane do you mean natural gas hydrates?

    The last sentence really does go off the wall though… “is it its co2 and..other goop.as burning byproducts”

    Really couldn’t get anything from that.

    So yes, what about it?

  30. This is mostly a me-too post (sorry about that), but I think there’s a useful point or two.

    > “Fossil fuels are a common source of both ethane and methane.”

    Natural gas is approximately 90% methane and 10% ethane. Are they including gases dissovled in crude oil in their wider blanket? Coal mines have some methane, do they have ethane too? Probably, at least in areas like Pennsylvania that has both coal and gas.

    > “After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas.

    Yeah, yeah, me too.

    > At the end of the 20th century, methane and ethane were deemed valuable energy resources;

    I thought natural gas use took off after the second World War. I suspect other people’s comments about the change from flaring off gas to packaging it as LNG may be what they were aiming at. I imagine that flaring operations were happy to keep ambient natural gas levels below explosive levels, and a lot of gas escaped without going through the flares. Once it became valuable, then there’d be an effort to collect it and minimize losses or letting air mix in.

    There’s also some claims that changes in rice production, I think less time flooded, reduced methane generation from organic decay, that ought to be considered in any study like this.

  31. At an industry lecture (I am a petroleum engineer) I was told by a petroleum advisor to the US Secretary of Defense that in around 1980 about 20 to 30 prolific gas wells in the Urengoy Peninsular in northern Siberia all blew out apparently because of bad metallurgy. These wells were not ignited but access to them was soon lost anyway because the permafost melted just with the temperature of the gas. My recollection is that the authorities wanted this massive problem kept quiet. It was a very large field so this release would have continued for years at very high rates. This would have represented a significant release of methane to the atmosphere that would have taken decades to be naturally removed. These days virtually no gas is released unburnt (in the West at least) and much less gas is flared than 30 years ago.

  32. Quote from one of the researchers.

    “Fossil fuels are a common source of both ethane and methane. Methane has many other sources, but we know most of the ethane in the atmosphere today is from fossil fuels. If ethane changes, it is easier to figure out the cause,” researcher Murat Aydin explains.

    … So we now have a very good fact-based answer (as opposed to pro-AGW illogical assertions) to why Methane levels have stabilized – the oil and gas industry is plugging up the leaks and not releasing it to the atmosphere as readily as they use to.

  33. As far as the human impact on methane is concerned, is has been conjectured that drilling in deeper and deeper waters has slowed the release of methane and ethane from sea bed reservoirs. Instead of bubbling out it is captured and burned.

  34. … We found that ethane emissions declined at the same time as the rise in methane dramatically slowed, suggesting a common cause.”…

    How does that follow? Are they suggesting all processes that create/release methane also create/release ethane at similar rates? Isn’t it possible there are numerous natural processes that preferentially create one over the other? This really sounds like a jump to a conclusion here.

  35. CH4 + 3(O2) = CO2 + 2(H2O) + Heat Energy
    It took life, H20, sun and CO2 to store that energy.
    Once the energy is freed, the components to store more are now available to the resource pool.
    Aren’t you glad that life has a future due to re-generation?
    Did you notice which element up there is most abundant?

  36. > “After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most important greenhouse gas.
    Third most important greenhouse gas. Somehow, they overlooked H2O again at 96%.

  37. As is often the case, the data is good data. The problem arises in the guesswork over what the data *means*. The decline in atmospheric ethane *could* mean that our natural gas processing infrastructure is getting more efficient – fewer leaks. ;-)

  38. Flaring.

    Ever hear of something called “Sour Gas?” That’s natural gas that is high in H2S. Aside from preventing a dangerous build-up of NG, flaring is a way to get rid of the H2S. Sour gas can be processed to reduce the sulfur content, but you still have to deal with it. The Tengiz field in Kazakhstan is a good example of that. They have been cited a few times for the way that they deal with the sulfur… I’m not sure what the specific reasons were other than the method of storage.

    You can see the sulfur piles on Google Earth: 46.166273°N 53.388778°N, Those aren’t large rectangular buildings. http://www.panoramio.com/photo/14542668

    Recently, a flurry of flatulence from the press claimed that SO2 from China was mitigating the Globular Warming problem. So… if tropospheric SO2 cools the planet, what about all that sour gas that was flared in the past? The byproduct of gas flaring would be CO2, H2O, and SO2. (and a bit of CO from incomplete combustion) Tengiz should serve as an visual example of how much sulfur is/was at play, it’s been in operation since about 1993.

  39. An_Inquiring_Mind says:
    August 15, 2011 at 10:47 pm
    The comments so far have missed the point: a possible (and most likely) explanation for the ethane trends is that (waste) gas emissions from gas/oil production have declined in the last 10 years or so as producers find a market increase for the “waste” natural gas and become more adept at capturing, transporting and storing natural gas. In this study, ethane was used as the tracer gas providing a synoptic signal that could be studied and analyzed. Irrespective of whether you find sufficient evidence for global climate change in other measurements, the fact that a detectable signal of the global trends in the gas/oil production, methods and markets can be found and easily measured in the Antarctic should surely be of interest to all with inquiring minds that need to know.”

    Ah. So you think that if natural gas is burnt economically efficiently instead of being burnt off as a waste product, the atmosphere somehow benefits. With thinking like that you should be a researcher.

  40. Sabastian beat me to it.

    I am all for more research (not modelling, real research by generating real data , again NOT model outputs) so perhaps these fine folks might change course and look at, hmm let me see, oh yeah WATER VAPOR and its role in climate modulation.

    just a thought. ;)

  41. Re: Ian H,
    “Doing a physical experiment to determine the recent history of ethane levels is a valuable and valid contribution to science….”

    I certainly agree — this is good, basic fieldwork, yielding actual factual data — as opposed to gauzy theoretical mathmodel-masturbation. The CC stuff is the obligatory trimming these days, and of course they do have to get financial support, and compete with other guys who are also serving up social-relevance hoorah. Don’t be too hard on someone who’s actually doing basic science!

    Peter D. Tillman
    Consulting Geologist & Geochemist

  42. how reliable is the gas record in fresh snow (past 50 years)? How long does it take for the mixing layer of snow to get decoupled from the atmosphere?

  43. Gas micro seeps are ubiquitous to all hydrocarbon basins on earth. In addition the most common gas is methane then ethane etc. When you begin to deplete a hydrocarbon deposit you see almost immediately a reduction in this flux of gas to the atmosphere.
    The process of sampling an area for halo mapping is well known and can also be used in a 4D sense by doing time sequence studies; it can show regions of bypass or isolated pay.
    Would this reduced flux have an impact I do not know but its real.
    In addition there has for a long time been a practice of venting associated gas at wellsites where volumes are low and the gas is commercially trivial. I think there is a very significant economic and regulatory driver to not do this now.
    Could the shale and CSG industry be a net reducer of GHG emissions? Are we to be forced to develop these reserves to save the world, let’s hope it cold in New Zealand at this time.

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