Journal article Open Access

Long-term decline of global atmospheric ethane concentrations and implications for methane

Simpson, Isobel J.; Sulbaek Andersen, Mads P.; Meinardi, Simone; Bruhwiler, Lori; Blake, Nicola J.; Helmig, Detlev; Rowland, F. Sherwood; Blake, Donald R.


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    <subfield code="a">After methane, ethane is the most abundant hydrocarbon in the
remote atmosphere. It is a precursor to tropospheric ozone and it
influences the atmosphere's oxidative capacity through its reaction
with the hydroxyl radical, ethane's primary atmospheric sink (1–3).
Here we present the longest continuous record of global atmospheric
ethane levels. We show that global ethane emission rates
decreased from 14.3 to 11.3 teragrams per year, or by 21 per cent,
from 1984 to 2010. We attribute this to decreasing fugitive emissions
from ethane's fossil fuel source—most probably decreased
venting and flaring of natural gas in oil fields—rather than a
decline in its other major sources, biofuel use and biomass burning.
Ethane's major emission sources are shared with methane, and
recent studies have disagreed on whether reduced fossil fuel or
microbial emissions have caused methane's atmospheric growth
rate to slow (4,5). Our findings suggest that reduced fugitive fossil fuel
emissions account for at least 10–21 teragrams per year (30–70 per
cent) of the decrease in methane's global emissions, significantly
contributing to methane's slowing atmospheric growth rate since
the mid-1980s.</subfield>
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    <subfield code="a">Sulbaek Andersen, Mads P.</subfield>
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    <subfield code="a">Simpson, Isobel J.</subfield>
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    <subfield code="a">10.1038/nature11342</subfield>
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