Investigating Northern Peatland Methane Production Pathways

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UMass Lowell Research Team: Dr. Mark Hines, Dean, College of Sciences and Dr. Lin Zhang, Research Scientist

The methane research team includes principal investigators from UMass Lowell, the University of New Hampshire, which is heading the NSF project, as well as Florida State University, the University of Arizona, Stockholm University and Lund University in Sweden, McGill University in Canada, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Applied Geosolutions Inc., and Aerodyne Research Inc.. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Investigating northern peatland methane production pathways by linking surface vegetation, underlying microbes, and biogeochemistry.
Methane(CH4) — a colorless, odorless and highly flammable gas that is a major component of natural gas. Its concentrations in the atmosphere are much lower than that of carbon dioxide. However, methane has a global warming potential of 34 compared to CO2 over a 100-year period, and 72 over a 20-year period. It is the second most important greenhouse gas after CO2.

Natural wetlands are not only one of the most important source for methane emissions, but also have the largest absolute uncertainty of any of the emission categories. The Arctic has a large coverage of natural peatlands with permafrost underlying them. 

Northern Peatlands store ~30% (450Gt) of the terrestrial organic carbon reserve. Some of these organic carbon is being transformed into methane and released into the atmosphere due to the fact that the Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else on Earth and underlying permafrost is melting. 

The terminal anaerobic degradation of organic carbon (i.e. methanogenesis) has been well studied. However, the production pathways of methane precursors (CO2 and volatile fatty acids) are complicated and less understood. In addition, in order to estimate the methane fluxes from northern peatlands on a larger scale, the quantitative link among surface vegetation, underlying microbes, and methane production pathways need to be better understood.  

Dr. Mark Hines and Dr. Lin Zhang have been conducting field studies in Alaska as well as laboratory microcosm studies in the Hines Lab at University of Massachusetts Lowell since 2013. Results from stable isotopic and metagenomic studies have shown that syntrophy might play a more important role in methane production than previously thought. These results have presented at international conferences such as American Geophysical Union and American Chemical Society Annual Meetings. Several manuscripts are being prepared. 

NSF