Letter | Published:

Minimal geological methane emissions during the Younger Dryas–Preboreal abrupt warming event

Nature volume 548, pages 443446 (24 August 2017) | Download Citation


Methane (CH4) is a powerful greenhouse gas and plays a key part in global atmospheric chemistry. Natural geological emissions (fossil methane vented naturally from marine and terrestrial seeps and mud volcanoes) are thought to contribute around 52 teragrams of methane per year to the global methane source, about 10 per cent of the total, but both bottom-up methods (measuring emissions)1 and top-down approaches (measuring atmospheric mole fractions and isotopes)2 for constraining these geological emissions have been associated with large uncertainties. Here we use ice core measurements to quantify the absolute amount of radiocarbon-containing methane (14CH4) in the past atmosphere and show that geological methane emissions were no higher than 15.4 teragrams per year (95 per cent confidence), averaged over the abrupt warming event that occurred between the Younger Dryas and Preboreal intervals, approximately 11,600 years ago. Assuming that past geological methane emissions were no lower than today3,4, our results indicate that current estimates of today’s natural geological methane emissions (about 52 teragrams per year)1,2 are too high and, by extension, that current estimates of anthropogenic fossil methane emissions2 are too low. Our results also improve on and confirm earlier findings5,6,7 that the rapid increase of about 50 per cent in mole fraction of atmospheric methane at the Younger Dryas–Preboreal event was driven by contemporaneous methane from sources such as wetlands; our findings constrain the contribution from old carbon reservoirs (marine methane hydrates8, permafrost9 and methane trapped under ice10) to 19 per cent or less (95 per cent confidence). To the extent that the characteristics of the most recent deglaciation and the Younger Dryas–Preboreal warming are comparable to those of the current anthropogenic warming, our measurements suggest that large future atmospheric releases of methane from old carbon sources are unlikely to occur.

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This work was supported by US National Science Foundation Awards 0839031 (J.P.S.), 0838936 (E.B.) and 1245659 (V.V.P.), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship (C.B.), the Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering (V.V.P.), the Marsden Fund Council from New Zealand Government funding administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand (H.S.) and the ANSTO Isotopes in Climate Change and Atmospheric Systems project (A.M.S.). Further support came from NIWA under Climate and Atmosphere Research Programme CAAC1504 (2014/15 SCI). We acknowledge the financial support from the Australian Government for the Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. We thank the US Antarctic Program for field support, US Ice Drilling and Development Office for ice drilling support, R. Beaudette for logistical assistance, the Institut Polaire Français Paul-Emile Victor for supporting X.F.’s field participation, J. Shakun for providing deglacial ice volume and temperature data, and M. Dyonisius, H. Graven, J. Miller, E. Dlugokencky, L. Murray, T. Weber, B. Hmiel and S. Schwietzke for comments.

Author information


  1. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York 14627, USA

    • Vasilii V. Petrenko
  2. Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Locked Bag 2001, Kirrawee DC, New South Wales 2232, Australia

    • Andrew M. Smith
    •  & Quan Hua
  3. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), PO Box 14901, Kilbirnie, 301 Evans Bay Parade, Wellington, New Zealand

    • Hinrich Schaefer
    •  & Katja Riedel
  4. College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

    • Edward Brook
    • , Christo Buizert
    • , Adrian Schilt
    • , Logan Mitchell
    •  & Thomas Bauska
  5. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • Daniel Baggenstos
    • , Christina Harth
    • , Anais Orsi
    • , Ray F. Weiss
    •  & Jeffrey P. Severinghaus
  6. University of Berne, Physics Institute, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland

    • Daniel Baggenstos
  7. Université Grenoble Alpes/CNRS, Laboratoire de Glaciologie et Géophysique de l’Environnement (LGGE), UMR 5183, Grenoble, 38041, France

    • Xavier Fain
  8. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

    • Logan Mitchell
  9. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK

    • Thomas Bauska
  10. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, LSCE/IPSL, CEA-CNRS-UVSQ, Université Paris-Saclay, F-91198 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Anais Orsi


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V.V.P., J.P.S. and E.B. designed the study. V.V.P., J.P.S., D.B., T.B. and E.B. conducted field logistical preparations. V.V.P. led the Antarctic field campaign, with D.B., H.S., C.B., A.S., X.F., L.M. and T.B. participating in sampling and field [CH4] analyses. E.B. supervised analyses of [CH4] in small ice samples in his laboratory. C.H. analysed [CH4] and halocarbons in large air samples under the supervision of R.F.W. D.B. performed analyses of δ15N, δXe/N2 and δKr/N2 with assistance from A.O. K.R. measured [CO] and δ13CH4, and performed the extractions of CH4 and CO from sample air, with assistance from H.S. A.M.S. and Q.H. carried out graphitization and accelerator mass spectrometry 14C analyses. H.S. did the Monte Carlo calculations of CH4 emissions. V.V.P. performed the data corrections and analyses, determined sample ages and wrote the manuscript, with assistance from all other authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Vasilii V. Petrenko.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks P. Hopcroft, R. Muscheler and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods (sections 1-6) and Supplementary Discussion (sections 7-10), Supplementary Figures 1-11, Supplementary Tables 1-11 and additional references.

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