Partitioning Biological and Anthropogenic Methane Sources

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Methane is an important greenhouse gas, and an ideal target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Unlike carbon dioxide, methane has a relatively short atmospheric lifetime, so reductions in methane emissions could have large and immediate impacts on anthropogenic radiative forcing. A more detailed understanding of the global methane budget could help guide effective emissions reductions efforts.

Humans have greatly altered the methane budget. Anthropogenic methane sources are approximately equal in flux to natural sources, and the current atmospheric methane concentration is ~2.5 times pre-industrial levels. The advent of hydraulic fracturing and resulting increase in unconventional natural gas extraction have introduced new uncertainties in the methane budget. At the same time, the next few decades could be a crucial period for controlling greenhouse gas emissions to avoid irreversible and catastrophic changes in global climate. Natural gas could provide lower-carbon fossil energy, but the climate benefits of this fuel source are highly dependent on the associated methane emissions. In this context of increasing uncertainty and growing necessity, quantifying the impact of natural gas extraction and use on the methane budget is an essential step in making informed decisions about energy.

In the work presented here, I track methane in the environment to address several areas of uncertainty in our present understanding of the methane budget. I apply the tools of methane analysis in a variety of environments, from rural groundwater supplies to an urban atmosphere, and at a range of scales, from individual point sources to regional flux. I first show that carbon isotopes of methane and co-occurrence of ethane are useful techniques for differentiating a range of methane sources. In so doing, I also show that leaks from natural gas infrastructure are a major source of methane in my study area, Boston, MA. I then build on this work by applying the same methane carbon isotope and ethane signatures to partition methane flux for the Boston metro region. I find that 88% of the methane enhancement in the atmosphere above Boston is due to pipeline natural gas.

In the final portion of this thesis and the two appendices, I move from the distribution side of the natural gas production chain to extraction, specifically addressing the potential impacts from hydraulic fracturing in my home state of North Carolina. I combine the methane source identification techniques of the previous sections with additional geochemical analyses to document the pre-drilling water quality in the Deep River Triassic Basin, an area which could be drilled for natural gas in the future. This data set is unique in that North Carolina has no pre-existing commercial oil and gas extraction, unlike other states where unconventional gas extraction is currently taking place. This research is, to my knowledge, the first to examine the hydrogeology of the Deep River Basin, in addition to providing an important background data set that could be used to track changes in water quality accompanying hydraulic fracturing in the region in the future.






Down, Adrian (2014). Partitioning Biological and Anthropogenic Methane Sources. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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