Letter | Published:

Methane fluxes show consistent temperature dependence across microbial to ecosystem scales

Nature volume 507, pages 488491 (27 March 2014) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Methane (CH4) is an important greenhouse gas because it has 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2) by mass over a century1. Recent calculations suggest that atmospheric CH4 emissions have been responsible for approximately 20% of Earth’s warming since pre-industrial times2. Understanding how CH4 emissions from ecosystems will respond to expected increases in global temperature is therefore fundamental to predicting whether the carbon cycle will mitigate or accelerate climate change. Methanogenesis is the terminal step in the remineralization of organic matter and is carried out by strictly anaerobic Archaea3. Like most other forms of metabolism, methanogenesis is temperature-dependent4,5. However, it is not yet known how this physiological response combines with other biotic processes (for example, methanotrophy6, substrate supply3,7, microbial community composition8) and abiotic processes (for example, water-table depth9,10) to determine the temperature dependence of ecosystem-level CH4 emissions. It is also not known whether CH4 emissions at the ecosystem level have a fundamentally different temperature dependence than other key fluxes in the carbon cycle, such as photosynthesis and respiration. Here we use meta-analyses to show that seasonal variations in CH4 emissions from a wide range of ecosystems exhibit an average temperature dependence similar to that of CH4 production derived from pure cultures of methanogens and anaerobic microbial communities. This average temperature dependence (0.96 electron volts (eV)), which corresponds to a 57-fold increase between 0 and 30°C, is considerably higher than previously observed for respiration (approximately 0.65 eV)11 and photosynthesis (approximately 0.3 eV)12. As a result, we show that both the emission of CH4 and the ratio of CH4 to CO2 emissions increase markedly with seasonal increases in temperature. Our findings suggest that global warming may have a large impact on the relative contributions of CO2 and CH4 to total greenhouse gas emissions from aquatic ecosystems, terrestrial wetlands and rice paddies.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Trimmer for early discussions that inspired much of this work, as well as P. Cox and T. Lenton for comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

    • Cristian Gudasz

    Present address: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, 106A Guyot Hall, New Jersey 08544, USA.

Affiliations

  1. Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9EZ. UK

    • Gabriel Yvon-Durocher
  2. Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia

    • Andrew P. Allen
  3. Department of Thematic Studies – Water and Environmental Studies, Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

    • David Bastviken
  4. Max-Planck-Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, Karl-von-Frisch-Strasse 10, 35043 Marburg, Germany

    • Ralf Conrad
  5. Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Umeå University, Linnaeus väg 6, SE-901 87 Umeå, Sweden

    • Cristian Gudasz
  6. Department of Ecology and Genetics, Limnology, Uppsala University, Norbyvägen 18D, SE-752 36, Uppsala Sweden

    • Cristian Gudasz
  7. Département des sciences biologiques, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, Province of Québec, H2X 3X8, Canada

    • Annick St-Pierre
    •  & Paul A. del Giorgio
  8. Earth Systems Research Center, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA

    • Nguyen Thanh-Duc

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Contributions

G.Y.-D., D.B. and C.G. had initial discussions. G.Y.-D. conceived the study, analysed the data and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. D.B., P.A.d.G., C.G., N.T.-D., R.C. and A.S. contributed original data. A.P.A. wrote the theory for the CH4:CO2 temperature dependence. All authors contributed to revisions of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gabriel Yvon-Durocher.

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    Supplementary Information

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13164

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