Methane and nitrous oxide in the ice core record

Polar ice cores contain, in trapped air bubbles, an archive of the concentrations of stable atmospheric gases. Of the major non-CO2 greenhouse gases, methane is measured quite routinely, while nitrous oxide is more challenging, with some artefacts occurring in the ice and so far limited interpretation. In the recent past, the ice cores provide the only direct measure of the changes that have occurred during the industrial period; they show that the current concentration of methane in the atmosphere is far outside the range experienced in the last 650 000 years; nitrous oxide is also elevated above its natural levels. There is controversy about whether changes in the pre- industrial Holocene are natural or anthropogenic in origin. Changes in wetland emissions are generally cited as the main cause of the large glacial–interglacial change in methane. However, changing sinks must also be considered, and the impact of possible newly described sources evaluated. Recent isotopic data appear to finally rule out any major impact of clathrate releases on methane at these time-scales. Any explanation must take into account that, at the rapid Dansgaard–Oeschger warmings of the last glacial period, methane rose by around half its glacial–interglacial range in only a few decades. The recent EPICA Dome C (Antarctica) record shows that methane tracked climate over the last 650 000 years, with lower methane concentrations in glacials than interglacials, and lower concentrations in cooler interglacials than in warmer ones. Nitrous oxide also shows Dansgaard–Oeschger and glacial–interglacial periodicity, but the pattern is less clear.


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Authors: Wolff, Eric, Spahni, Renato

On this site: Eric Wolff
1 January, 2007
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, A / 365
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