Water column methanotrophy controlled by a rapid oceanographic switch

  • Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 378382 (2015)
  • doi:10.1038/ngeo2420
  • Download Citation
Published online:


Large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane are released from the seabed to the water column1, where it may be consumed by aerobic methanotrophic bacteria2. The size and activity of methanotrophic communities, which determine the amount of methane consumed in the water column, are thought to be mainly controlled by nutrient and redox dynamics3,4,5,6,7. Here, we report repeated measurements of methanotrophic activity and community size at methane seeps west of Svalbard, and relate them to physical water mass properties and modelled ocean currents. We show that cold bottom water, which contained a large number of aerobic methanotrophs, was displaced by warmer water with a considerably smaller methanotrophic community within days. Ocean current simulations using a global ocean/sea-ice model suggest that this water mass exchange is consistent with short-term variations in the meandering West Spitsbergen Current. We conclude that the shift from an offshore to a nearshore position of the current can rapidly and severely reduce methanotrophic activity in the water column. Strong fluctuating currents are common at many methane seep systems globally, and we suggest that they affect methane oxidation in the water column at other sites, too.

  • Subscribe to Nature Geoscience for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    & Seafloor oxygen consumption fuelled by methane from cold seeps. Nature Geosci. 6, 725–734 (2013).

  2. 2.

    Oceanic methane biogeochemistry. Chem. Rev. 107, 486–513 (2007).

  3. 3.

    & Methane oxidation in Cape Lookout Bight, North Carolina. Limnol. Oceanogr. 23, 349–355 (1978).

  4. 4.

    , & Methanotrophs and copper. FEMS Microbiol. Rev. 34, 496–531 (2010).

  5. 5.

    et al. A persistent oxygen anomaly reveals the fate of spilled methane in the deep Gulf of Mexico. Science 331, 312–315 (2011).

  6. 6.

    , , , & Vertical distribution of methane oxidation and methanotrophic response to elevated methane concentrations in stratified waters of the Arctic fjord Storfjorden (Svalbard, Norway). Biogeosciences 10, 6267–6278 (2013).

  7. 7.

    et al. The rise and fall of methanotrophy following a deepwater oil-well blowout. Nature Geosci. 7, 423–427 (2014).

  8. 8.

    et al. The global inventory of methane hydrate in marine sediments: A theoretical approach. Energies 5, 2449–2498 (2012).

  9. 9.

    & Anaerobic oxidation of methane: Progress with an unknown process. Annu. Rev. Microbiol. 63, 311–334 (2009).

  10. 10.

    et al. Three decades of global methane sources and sinks. Nature Geosci. 6, 813–823 (2013).

  11. 11.

    et al. Black-Sea methane geochemistry. Deep-Sea Res. I 38, 1189–1210 (1991).

  12. 12.

    & Methanotrophic bacteria. Microbiol. Rev. 60, 439–471 (1996).

  13. 13.

    in Handbook of Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology (ed Timmis, K. N.) 1953–1966 (Springer, 2010).

  14. 14.

    , & Ocean temperature variability for the past 60 years on the Norwegian-Svalbard margin influences gas hydrate stability on human time scales. J. Geophys. Res. 117, C10017 (2012).

  15. 15.

    et al. Rising Arctic Ocean temperatures cause gas hydrate destabilization and ocean acidification. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L08602 (2011).

  16. 16.

    , , , & Advection shapes Southern Ocean microbial assemblages independent of distance and environment effects. Nature Commun. 4, 2457 (2013).

  17. 17.

    et al. Methane sources, distributions, and fluxes from cold vent sites at Hydrate Ridge, Cascadia Margin. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 19, GB2016 (2005).

  18. 18.

    , & Physical control on methanotrophic potential in waters of the Santa Monica Basin, Southern California. Limnol. Oceanogr. 57, 420–432 (2012).

  19. 19.

    et al. Temporal constraints on hydrate-controlled methane seepage off Svalbard. Science 343, 284–287 (2014).

  20. 20.

    et al. Escape of methane gas from the seabed along the West Spitsbergen continental margin. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L15608 (2009).

  21. 21.

    et al. A water column study of methane around gas flares located at the West Spitsbergen continental margin. Cont. Shelf Res. 72, 107–118 (2014).

  22. 22.

    , , , & Pathways of methane in seawater: Plume spreading in an Arctic shelf environment (SW-Spitsbergen). Cont. Shelf Res. 25, 1453–1472 (2005).

  23. 23.

    , , , & Methane cycling in Arctic shelf water and its relationship with phytoplankton biomass and DMSP. Mar. Chem. 109, 45–59 (2008).

  24. 24.

    , , & Arctic warming through the Fram Strait: Oceanic heat transport from 3 years of measurements. J. Geophys. Res. 109, C06026 (2004).

  25. 25.

    Arctic intermediate water in the Norwegian sea. Deep-Sea Res. I 37, 1475–1489 (1990).

  26. 26.

    , & The westward turning branch of the West Spitsbergen Current. J. Geophys. Res. 93, 14065–14077 (1988).

  27. 27.

    Features of the physical oceanographic conditions of the Barents Sea. Polar Res. 10, 5–18 (1991).

  28. 28.

    , , & Aerobic methane oxidation and methanotroph community composition during seasonal stratification in Mono Lake, California (USA). Environ. Microbiol. 7, 1127–1138 (2005).

  29. 29.

    et al. Intra-seasonal variability of the DWBC in the western subpolar North Atlantic. Prog. Oceanogr. 132, 233–249 (2015).

  30. 30.

    et al. Methane discharge from a deep-sea submarine mud volcano into the upper water column by gas hydrate-coated methane bubbles. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 243, 354–365 (2006).

Download references


The authors thank the captains, crews and shipboard scientific parties of R/V Poseidon and R/V Maria S. Merian for their excellent help at sea. We greatly acknowledge K. Hissmann and J. Schauer for operating the submersible Jago. Model simulations were performed at the North-German Supercomputing Alliance (HLRN). This work received financial support through a D-A-CH project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and German Research Foundation (grant no. 200021L_138057). Further support was provided through the EU COST Action PERGAMON (ESSEM 0902), a Postgraduate Scholarship of the National Research Council of Canada, the Centre of Excellence ‘CAGE’ funded by the Norwegian Research Council (grant no. 223259), the cooperative Projects ‘RACE—Regional Atlantic Circulation and Global Change’ funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and the Cluster of Excellence ‘The Future Ocean’ funded by the German Research Foundation.

Author information

Author notes

    • Tina Treude
    •  & Jens Greinert

    Present address: University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Earth, Planetary & Space Sciences and Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA.


  1. Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Basel, 4056 Basel, Switzerland

    • Lea Steinle
    • , Moritz F. Lehmann
    •  & Helge Niemann
  2. GEOMAR, Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, 24148 Kiel, Germany

    • Lea Steinle
    • , Tina Treude
    • , Arne Biastoch
    • , Christian Berndt
    • , Erik Behrens
    • , Claus W. Böning
    • , Jens Greinert
    • , Markus Scheinert
    •  & Stefan Sommer
  3. Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, Southampton SO14 3ZH, UK

    • Carolyn A. Graves
    •  & Rachael H. James
  4. CAGE-Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate, Department of Geology, University of Tromsø, 9037 Tromsø, Norway

    • Bénédicte Ferré
    •  & Jens Greinert
  5. Alfred Wegener Institute, Marine Station Helgoland, 27498 Helgoland, Germany

    • Ingeborg Bussmann
  6. Institute of Geosciences, University of Kiel, 24118 Kiel, Germany

    • Sebastian Krastel
  7. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Wellington 6021, New Zealand

    • Erik Behrens
  8. Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research NIOZ, 1790 AB Den Burg, Texel, The Netherlands

    • Jens Greinert
  9. Laboratoire de Glaciologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1050 Brussels, Belgium

    • Célia-Julia Sapart
  10. Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht University, 3584CC Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Célia-Julia Sapart


  1. Search for Lea Steinle in:

  2. Search for Carolyn A. Graves in:

  3. Search for Tina Treude in:

  4. Search for Bénédicte Ferré in:

  5. Search for Arne Biastoch in:

  6. Search for Ingeborg Bussmann in:

  7. Search for Christian Berndt in:

  8. Search for Sebastian Krastel in:

  9. Search for Rachael H. James in:

  10. Search for Erik Behrens in:

  11. Search for Claus W. Böning in:

  12. Search for Jens Greinert in:

  13. Search for Célia-Julia Sapart in:

  14. Search for Markus Scheinert in:

  15. Search for Stefan Sommer in:

  16. Search for Moritz F. Lehmann in:

  17. Search for Helge Niemann in:


L.S., C.A.G., T.T., I.B., J.G., C-J.S., S.S. and H.N. collected the samples and performed measurements of biogeochemical rates and/or physicochemical parameters. L.S. carried out enumeration of microbial cells. A.B., B.F., J.G., E.B., C.W.B. and M.S. conducted oceanographic modelling, interpretation and/or graphical representation. C.B. and S.K. were responsible for acoustic measurements. T.T., R.H.J., M.F.L. and H.N. supervised research. L.S. and H.N. led the development of the manuscript and all co-authors contributed to data interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Lea Steinle or Helge Niemann.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information