Measure Methane Where it Matters

Methane has been in the news a lot lately, mostly in a bad way. Methane gas caused the deadly Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion. Methane exploded on the Deep Water Horizon oil rig and complicated efforts to stop the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to acute dangers, methane has ominous potential as a greenhouse gas. But it is not all bad. When captured, methane is a potent energy source.

With greenhouse gas scientists turning more attention to methane, we tell the stories of three investigations into methane emissions. This story is the first in a three part series that will highlight new research into methane exchange at the ecosystem level. All of these investigations show how the LI-7700 Open Path CH4 Analyzer is advancing methane flux research.

Part I: Florida Everglades

For thousands of years the Florida Everglades existed as a vast wetland, teeming with semi-aquatic wildlife. Often called a “River of Grass,” these wetlands are blanketed with marsh grasses, sedges and rushes, and are punctuated with islands of trees and dry land. The wetlands provide breeding ground and shelter for alligators and a myriad of other organisms, while the islands of trees shelter wildlife like the rare Florida Panther.

Underneath the water, biological processes unfold at the organismal and molecular levels. Microorganisms continuously break down plant matter in the low-oxygen environment. Anaerobic bacteria break the organic compounds into simpler molecules. Some of these molecules are fully mineralized to methane, which is released to the atmosphere. No one knows exactly how much methane these processes release, how methane emissions vary regionally, or how environmental drivers affect methane emissions.

Dr. Jessica Schedlbauer, a post-doctoral scientist at Florida International University, is one of the first scientists to assess this in the Everglades. She is studying how different environmental conditions affect carbon exchange, including methane flux with an LI-7700 Open Path CH4 Analyzer. The Florida Everglades are an ideal place to conduct this research because water levels are managed in many regions. This provides additional control over variables that influence methane exchange. “We’re able to relate these fluxes to changes in different environmental drivers, which is really useful”, she says.

While the Florida Everglades are an ideal place to assess these phenomena, the remote location presents a problem for instruments designed for bench-top applications. There are no power lines to this remote research site, and building them is cost prohibitive (not to mention that they would sully an otherwise pristine landscape). Generators are not ideal because they require gallons of fuel every day. There are no roads for a fuel truck, and expenses for fuel and maintenance can add tens of thousands of dollars per year to a research budget. The LI-7700, however, is designed specifically for this type of environment. Jessica says, “The LI-7700 is a tremendous step forward in terms of being able to characterize methane flux in any kind of ecosystem on an instantaneous basis. It’s something that we couldn’t have done in the past at a remote field site.”

She adds, “Having the LI-7700 at our site has been, and will be, useful as this project moves forward. It’s sort of our first look at what is happening in these ecosystems in terms of methane flux because nobody really knows.” Jessica’s research will provide another essential piece to the puzzle of climate change by helping characterize methane flux. And, her work highlights the new research opportunities the LI-7700 is creating.

Jessica Schedlbauer was a post-doctoral scientist under Dr. Steve Oberbauer at Florida International University. Now she is an assistant professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
Learn more at about the LI-7700 and LI-COR Greenhouse Gas Packages.

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This article was originally posted on Friday, August 27th, 2010.

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One Response to “Measure Methane Where it Matters”

  1. [...] This story is Part II of a three part series investigating methane emissions (click here for Part I). [...]