Feature Story | 23-Sep-2022

Modeling methane

University of Tennessee Earth and Planetary Sciences

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Methane – the main component of natural gas – is the latest greenhouse gas targeted by climate science researchers. UT Professor Annette Summers Engel is the principal investigator for a multi-institutional team that received a $2.91 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study methane emissions in coastal wetlands, which play an important role in climate change. 

“We know that about 40% of global methane emissions come from coastal fresh and saltwater wetlands and marshes,” said Engel, professor in the UT Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “Processes that affect methane cycling, however, are poorly understood, particularly when we consider processes that we cannot see or measure, like those occurring in soil by microorganisms, or processes that are occurring over different time scales or at the landscape scale due to, for example, sea-level rise.”

Research team members include Brian Roberts and Marshall Bowles from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), Haosheng Huang, Dubravko Justić, and Giulio Mariotti from Louisiana State University, Charles Schutte from Rowan University, and Kevin Yeager from the University of Kentucky. The team includes experts from across the earth sciences and uniquely unites field research and computer modeling.

The team will focus on marshes in southern Louisiana, specifically in the Terrebonne-Timbalier Estuary near LUMCON. They will study methane emissions from coastal soils as sea-level rises and test natural microbial, landscape, and hydraulic controls on emissions. The goal is to provide an inventory of methane ‘hotspots’ in the landscape.

“Methane is a strong greenhouse gas responsible for nearly a quarter of global warming since the Industrial Revolution,” Engel said. 

Nearly 1 billion people worldwide live along coasts on large river deltas and are currently being affected by sea-level rise related to climate change, which causes land loss and inland flooding. Sea-level rise rates, which are already more than a tenth of an inch per year, are expected to increase due to climate change. By some estimates, the Louisiana coastline is losing about a football field of land every couple of hours.

 “Our research will expand our ability to model methane emissions from wetlands, which will improve our understanding of how marshes contribute to climate change and could potentially lead to better mitigation efforts in the future,” Engel said. 

In addition, researchers will provide science education and outreach experiences for students and the public. While most of the outreach will focus on southern Louisiana, students and researchers at the other institutions will be supported by the project.

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