Significant methane ebullition from alpine permafrost rivers on the East Qinghai–Tibet Plateau


Inland waters are large sources of methane to the atmosphere. However, considerable uncertainty exists in estimating the emissions of this potent greenhouse gas from global streams and rivers due, in part, to a lack of direct measurements in the high-altitude cryosphere and poor accounting for ebullition. Here we present methane concentrations and fluxes over three years in four basins on the East Qinghai–Tibet Plateau. Methane ebullition rates decrease exponentially whereas diffusion declines linearly with increasing stream order. Nonetheless, the average ebullition rate (11.9 mmolCH4 m−2 d−1) from these streams and rivers—which have large organic stocks in surrounding permafrost, abundant cold-tolerant methanogens, shallow water depths, and experience low air pressure—were six times greater than the global average and reached a maximum of 374.4 mmolCH4 m−2 d−1. Upscaled total emissions from sampled third- to seventh-order waterways of the East Qinghai–Tibet Plateau are estimated to be 0.20 TgCH4 yr−1, 79% of which was attributed to ebullition. These methane emissions are approximately 20% of CO2 emissions (2.70 TgCO2 yr−1) in terms of carbon release and two times greater in terms of CO2-equivalent emissions. When upscaled to first- to seventh-order waterways, we estimate emissions of 0.37–1.23 TgCH4 yr−1. Our findings demonstrate that high-elevation rivers on the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau are hotspots of methane delivery to the atmosphere. The large ebullitive fluxes, which constitute a substantial fraction of global fluvial methane emissions, reveal a positive feedback between climate warming, permafrost thaw and methane emissions.

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Fig. 1: Sampling sites in four headwater river basins on the EQTP, China.
Fig. 2: Permafrost wetlands drive the pattern of fluvial CH4 ebullition, DOC concentrations and SOC content across EQTP rivers.
Fig. 3: 16S rRNA gene sequences related to methanogenic and methanotrophic clades in EQTP riverbed sediments.
Fig. 4: Drivers of CH4 ebullition across EQTP rivers.
Fig. 5: CH4 diffusion and ebullition and CO2 diffusion in relation to stream order across EQTP rivers.

Data availability

The data are available at the Environmental Data Initiative ( All sequences reported in this study were deposited in NCBI Short Read Archive (SRA) under the BioProject accession number PRJNA605704.

Code availability

The Monte Carlo model code is available at the Environmental Data Initiative (


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We thank D. E. Butman for insightful discussions. This work was financially supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (grant no. 2017YFA0605001), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 91547207) and the fund for Innovative Research Group of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 51721093).

Author information




X.X. and L.Z. designed the study. L.Z., S.Z., S. Li, J.W., G.W., H.G., Z.Z. and W.W. collected and analysed samples. S. Liu, Q.W. and R.L. conducted GIS and Monte Carlo analyses. X.X., L.Z., S. Liu, Z.Y., E.H.S. and P.A.R. performed data analysis and wrote the manuscript with substantial contributions from all co-authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xinghui Xia.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editors: Tamara Goldin; Xujia Jiang.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Geography of the four studied EQTP headwater basins, China.

a–c, Thermokarst ponds dot along the narrow stream corridors (> 4200 m). d, e, Streams meander through thawing permafrost or peatlands (4200–3400 m). f, Glacial ponds, lakes, and wetlands connect to headwater streams. g, Braided channels suffuse the entire QTP. h, The 5th order river channel (MD reach) of the Yellow River is wide (43.1 ± 29.8 m) but with shallow water depth (0.65 ± 0.13 m). i, Site locations in the four headwater river basins of the EQTP. j, Four headwater river basins underlain with the spatial extents of continuous, discontinuous, sporadic, and isolated permafrost on the EQTP (Data of permafrost distribution were obtained from Obu, J., Westermann, S., Kääb, A. & Bartsch, A. Permafrost Extent and Ground Temperature Map, 2000–2016, Northern Hemisphere Permafrost.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Box plots of seasonal and regional patterns of CH4 concentrations a, and fluxes b, from EQTP rivers.

Box plots present first and third quartiles; whiskers are minimum and maximum and line is median. Markers are outliers. Note the different scales and units.

Extended Data Fig. 3 CH4 ebullition as a function of DOC a, and SOC b, flow velocity c, and SOC d, as a function of Log (Q/w).

The red dashed lines are the fit of linear regressions for a, b and d; or exponential regression for c through observed data.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Methanogens: methanotrophs ratio a, SOC b, SS concentration c, total length d, and average width e, as a function of stream order.

Sixth and seventh order rivers meander through canyons, limiting their width. Thus, second through fifth order streams only were included in the regression used to predict the width of first order streams. The dashed red lines represent the fit of exponential regressions through observed data. All error bars show mean ± 1 s.e.m.

Extended Data Fig. 5

CH4 and CO2 emissions from EQTP alpine waterways.

Supplementary information

Visible bubbles erupting from a shallow stream sediment seep at JZ (see Supplementary Table 1), where there are substantial thawing permafrost surrounding, and the ebullition persisted for more than 80 min (duration of sampling time) to sustain high CH4 ebullition rate (734.4 mmol m−2 d−1).

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods a and b, Discussion a–c, Fig. 1 and Tables 1–6.

Supplementary Video 1

Visible bubbles erupting from a shallow stream sediment seep at JZ (see Supplementary Table 1), where there are substantial thawing permafrost surrounding, and the ebullition persisted for more than 80 min (duration of sampling time) to sustain high CH4 ebullition rate (734.4 mmol m−2 d−1).

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Zhang, L., Xia, X., Liu, S. et al. Significant methane ebullition from alpine permafrost rivers on the East Qinghai–Tibet Plateau. Nat. Geosci. 13, 349–354 (2020).

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