Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Continuing decline in the growth rate of the atmospheric methane burden


The global atmospheric methane burden has more than doubled since pre-industrial times1,2, and this increase is responsible for about 20% of the estimated change in direct radiative forcing due to anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions. Research into future climate change and the development of remedial environmental policies therefore require a reliable assessment of the long-term growth rate in the atmospheric methane load. Measurements have revealed that although the global atmospheric methane burden continues to increase2 with significant interannual variability3,4, the overall rate of increase has slowed2,5. Here we present an analysis of methane measurements from a global air sampling network that suggests that, assuming constant OH concentration, global annual methane emissions have remained nearly constant during the period 1984–96, and that the decreasing growth rate in atmospheric methane reflects the approach to a steady state on a timescale comparable to methane's atmospheric lifetime. If the global methane sources and OH concentration continue to remain constant, we expect average methane mixing ratios to increase slowly from today's 1,730 nmol mol−1 to 1,800 nmol mol−1, with little change in the contribution of methane to the greenhouse effect.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Result of spatial and temporal smoothing of CH4 measurements from CMDL air sampling network sites.
Figure 2: Results of calculations of CH4 source and sink from mass-balance equation and intersemihemispheric difference are plotted as a function of time.


  1. Etheridge, D. M., Pearman, G. I. & Fraser, P. J. Changes in tropospheric methane between 1841 and 1978 from a high accumulation rate Antarctic ice core. Tellus 44, 282–294 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Dlugokencky, E. J., Steele, L. P., Lang, P. M. & Masarie, K. A. The growth rate and distribution of atmospheric methane. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 17021–17043 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Dlugokencky, E. J. et al. Changes in CH4and CO growth rates aftr the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and their link with changes in tropical tropospheric UV flux. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 2761–2764 (1996).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Dlugokencky, E. J. et al. Adramatic decrease in the growth rate of atmospheric methane in the northern hemisphere during 1992. Geophys. Res. Lett. 21, 45–48 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Steele, L. P. et al. Slowing down of the global accumulation of atmospheric methane during the 1980's. Nature 358, 313–316 (1992).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Thoning, K. W., Tans, P. P. & Komhyr, W. D. Atmospheric carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa observatory, 2. Analysis of the NOAA GMCC data, 1974–1985. J. Geophys. Res. 94, 8549–8565 (1989).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Tans, P. P., Conway, T. J. & Nakazawa, T. Latitudinal distribution of the sources and sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide derived from surface observations and an atmospheric transport model. J. Geophys. Res. 94, 5151–5172 (1989).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Hogan, K. B. & Harriss, R. C. Comment on ‘A dramatic decrease in the growth rate of atmospheric methane in the northern hemisphere during 1992’ by E. J. Dlugokencky et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 21, 2445–2446 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Bekki, S., Law, K. S. & Pyle, J. A. Effect of ozone deletion on atmospheric CH4and CO. Nature 371, 595–597 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Lowe, D. C., Brenninkmeijer, C. A. M., Brailsford, G. W., Lassey, K. R. & Gomez, A. J. Concentration and 13C records of atmospheric methane in New Zealand and Antarctica:Evidence for changes in methane sources. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 16913–16925 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Prinn, R. G. et al. Atmospheric trends and lifetime of CH3CCl3and global OH concentrations. Science 269, 187–192 (1995).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Dlugokencky, E. J., Masarie, K. A., Tans, P. P., Conway, T. J. & Xiong, X. Is the amplitude of the CH4seasonal cycle changing? Atmos. Environ. 31, 21–26 (1997).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Prather, M. J. Time scales in atmospheric chemistry: Theory, GWPs for CH4and CO, and runaway growth. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 2597–2600 (1996).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Fung, I. et al. Three-dimensional model synthesis of the global methane cycle. J. Geophys. Res. 96, 13033–13065 (1991).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Cicerone, R. J. & Oremland, R. S. Biogeochemical aspects of atmospheric methane. Global Biogeochem. Cycles 2, 299–327 (1988).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Gupta, M. & Cicerone, R. Perturbation to global tropospheric photochemistry due to changes in latitudinal distributions of surface sources of CH4, CO, and NOx. Eos 78, 90 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Law, K. S. & Nisbet, E. G. Sensitivity of the CH4growth rate to changes in CH4emissions from natural gas and coal. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 14387–14397 (1996).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Hogan, K. B., Hoffman, J. S. & Thompson, A. M. Methane on the greenhouse agenda. Nature 354, 181–182 (1991).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Khalil, M. A. K. & Rasmussen, R. Decreasing trend of methane: unpredictability of future concentrations. Chemosphere 26, 803–814 (1993).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Schimel, D. et al. in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 1995, The Science of Climate Change 94 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Interactive Data Language Research Systems ( Boulder, Colorad, (1997).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank all agencies that have assisted us with the cooperative air sampling network, and Blue Star Line for their continued support of our sampling efforts. We are grateful for the efforts of all network observers, and thank T. Conway and R. Cicerone for comments. This work was supported in part by the Atmospheric Chemistry Proejct of the NOAA Climate and Global Change Program and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to E. J. Dlugokencky.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dlugokencky, E., Masarie, K., Lang, P. et al. Continuing decline in the growth rate of the atmospheric methane burden. Nature 393, 447–450 (1998).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing