Aliso Canyon, Methane, and Global Climate: A Conversation with Paul Wennberg

On October 23, 2015, the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility for natural gas in the San Fernando Valley—the fourth largest of its kind in the United States—had one of its wells blow out, leading to a large release of methane. The leak was not fully under control until February 11, 2016. In the interim, residents of nearby neighborhoods were sickened by the odorants added to the gas, thousands of households were displaced, and California's governor declared a state of emergency for the area. The story made international headlines; the BBC's headline, for example, read, "California methane leak 'largest in US history.'"

The leak was indeed large and undoubtedly difficult for the residents of the area. However, Caltech's Paul Wennberg says there is also a bigger picture to keep in mind: enormous methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions occur all the time, with troubling implications for global climate. Wennberg is Caltech's R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering, executive officer for Environmental Science and Engineering, and director of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science.

We recently sat down with him to talk about methane emissions and how to put the Aliso Canyon event into perspective.

What was your involvement with the Aliso Canyon event?

We have a greenhouse gas remote sensing system here at Caltech that is part of TCCON—the Total Carbon Column Observing Network. The day after the Aliso Canyon leak started, we observed something really weird in the air above Pasadena. There was a large, big plume of methane and ethane gas that came over. We now know that it was from the Aliso Canyon facility. We are providing data for the final analyses of the leak.

In the past you have suggested that the methane emissions from Los Angeles are much larger than was previously included in models.

Right. Thankfully, models are now catching up as we learn more from the data.

What does the Aliso Canyon event suggest about Los Angeles's methane emissions in general?

Aliso Canyon was a very dramatic event. Everyone heard about it worldwide. The leak continued for about 100 days, and yet it only doubled the amount of methane being emitted by LA during that period. This was a tragedy for the people living next to it, who had to deal with horrible nausea and other side effects of the chemicals associated with the natural gas. But from a climate point of view, the methane leak was actually quite trivial.

There are enormous amounts of methane being released into the atmosphere globally as a result of human activity. That is certainly true of LA, but as far as climate goes, it doesn't matter whether it's released in LA or New Zealand. On the timescale that methane sticks around in the atmosphere, it gets well mixed and affects the entire planet.

How much methane is emitted per year?

About three hundred teragrams [Tg; one teragram is equivalent to one billion kilograms] of methane are emitted every year by people and the activities of people, like agriculture and energy. Los Angeles emits about 0.4 Tg. That means that of the human methane emissions, LA as a total is one part in a thousand—not nothing, but a pretty small amount.

For perspective, Aliso Canyon emitted around 0.1 Tg. It was a big event, but what it really illustrates is how big a challenge we truly face. There are many sources emitting methane into the atmosphere and they are very diffuse. Reducing them will require hard work on many, many fronts. So it's not just, "If we solve this one problem, everything will be beautiful in the world."

You could imagine the response to the Aliso Canyon leak might be that we would all of a sudden focus all of our efforts trying to prevent leaks in natural gas storage facilities. That would not be the right answer from a climate perspective.

How should people go about eliminating methane emissions?

There is not "one" fix. Each source requires a different strategy for mitigation.

First, there is fixing leaks in the pipelines and storage facilities.

Then, it turns out that ruminants like cows and sheep produce a lot of methane—probably a third, if not more, of the human emissions. A paper about this, recently in Science, suggests that an important part of the recent increases in methane is coming from agriculture. Depending on what you feed these ruminants, they produce less methane. They eat grass, but they can't metabolize it: they have a fermenter going in their bellies—a whole microbiome that breaks the grass down into smaller things like acetate that they can metabolize. Depending on the microbiome of their guts, the cows and sheep make more or less methane. And it turns out that you can manage this.

Then there are the wetlands used for rice agriculture. Methane is produced anaerobically—in places with no oxygen—by Archaea. If you have a flooded rice paddy, the methane is produced at the roots and is transpired through the rice plants into the atmosphere. Quite a few studies now show that if you can change your rice agricultural practices to allow the fields to dry periodically, the methane emissions drop hugely.

If you were able to fix all of these things what would the impact be in terms of climate change?

If we could really knock the methane emissions back to what they were before people started emitting methane, it would be a large change. It would be a half a watt per meter squared. The total global warming would drop by around 25 percent.

How does the importance of reducing methane emissions compare to the importance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions?

Globally, methane is important. It's maybe a third of the climate forcing of CO2—that is, the increase in methane has contributed about one third of the total change in Earth's climate over the last 100 years. In terms of climate impact, however, the methane emissions from people in Los Angeles are absolutely dwarfed by their CO2 emissions—all of our driving, going on airplanes, and everything else that we do. Still, if we are to reduce our global warming potential and the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit to the atmosphere, methane has to be part of the equation.

We like to think that we can solve these problems by fixing singular events, but climate doesn't work that way. We're talking about the emissions of 7 billion people. If it were that this was produced by 100 events like Aliso Canyon, this would be a simple problem: we solve the 100 problems, and we're done. But it's all of us, and it's all of what we eat, it's all of the energy that we use, it's all of the miles that we drive. It's a much more complex problem.

What work is your group currently doing in terms of methane?

One of the things we've been doing is long-term monitoring. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4) but there's also ethane (C2H6) in it and this provides a way of separating the signature of methane emitted from agriculture, which has no ethane, and emissions from natural gas, which does.

Over the last five years or so, the production of oil in the United States has increased hugely, and associated with that oil production is natural gas, and therefore methane and ethane. Traditionally, most of the ethane produced at a wellhead was pulled off and sent to the plastic industry. With the changing oil production, the market has become flooded in ethane: there's simply not enough plastic to be made. When the industry can't sell the ethane to the plastic industry, they simply leave it in the natural gas. We see this in the natural gas delivered to Los Angeles. Five years ago natural gas had about 2 percent ethane. Now it's 5 percent—it's more than doubled. What we've seen—and this has nothing to do with Aliso Canyon—is that over the last five years, the amount of ethane in the air over Pasadena has increased.

That's important because it tells us that a significant fraction of the methane that's being released in LA is coming from natural gas brought into Los Angeles. This has been a topic of a lot of debate. Is the big methane emitter the oil production down in the Long Beach area? Is it waste treatment plants? Is it garbage dumps? What we find is that about half of all the methane emitted in this part of LA is gas that originally came in on a pipeline.

How do you know that?

We actually know from the gas company how much ethane is in the natural gas. They report this publically from one of their storage fields and this matches the ethane in samples of the natural gas coming into our buildings.

Are there other projects under way at Caltech to study methane emissions?

Christian Frankenberg [associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech and a JPL research scientist] has been leading an effort to build remote sensing instruments that allow imaging of methane plumes. Using small spectrometers on airplanes, he has flown over areas where you might have a lot of methane emissions and identified individual sources. Last year they were able to find individual pipelines that were leaking in Colorado and in New Mexico. They found several big leaks from pipelines and were able to tell the pipeline operators, who shut them down and fixed them.

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We recently sat down with Paul Wennberg to talk about methane emissions and how to put the Aliso Canyon event into perspective.
Monday, May 23, 2016
Brown Gymnasium – Scott Brown Gymnasium

Animal magnetism

Monday, February 29, 2016
Brown Gymnasium – Scott Brown Gymnasium

Animal magnetism

Thursday, May 26, 2016
Avery House – Avery House

The Mentoring Effect: Conference on Mentoring Undergraduate Researchers

Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

TA Workshop: Getting the Biggest ‘Bang for Your Buck’ - Teaching strategies for busy TAs

Monday, March 28, 2016 to Friday, April 15, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Spring TA Training -- 2016

Geophysicist David G. Harkrider Dies

David G. Harkrider, professor of geophysics, emeritus, at Caltech and an expert in seismological wave propagation, passed away on Tuesday, February 16, 2016. He was 84.

Born on September 25, 1931 in Houston, Texas, Harkrider received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Rice University in 1953 and 1957, respectively. He earned a doctorate in geophysics from Caltech in 1963 and remained as a research fellow until 1965, when he joined the Department of Geology at Brown University as an assistant professor. Harkrider returned to Caltech as an associate professor in 1970, becoming a professor in 1979 and a professor emeritus in 1995. From 1977–1979 he was the associate director of Caltech's Seismological Laboratory.

He was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 1979. From 1982–1988 he was on the board of the Seismological Society of America, serving as vice president in 1987 and as president in 1988. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2009.

Harkrider investigated diverse topics within the field of geophysics. Early in his career he studied the theory of air-wave trains—the oscillations of the atmosphere in regions experiencing strong shocks, such as a meteor or a nuclear explosion. At Caltech, he collaborated with Professor of Geophysics Donald Helmberger and then-Professor of Geophysics Charles Archambeau (now a retired professor of physics at the University of Colorado) to analyze and interpret the propagation of seismic waves in the earth. Harkrider's work was focused on the analysis of the propagation of surface waves—a type of seismic wave that travels through the crust—and their coupling with air waves and tsunami waves. He led the development of a digital computing system to recognize the seismic signals from earthquakes, rapidly determine their locations, and distinguish the signatures of earthquakes from those of nuclear explosions. Harkrider's modeling efforts played a key role in ensuring the compliance of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union.

Together with Don Helmberger, Harkrider taught a year-long course in seismology. Numerous graduates of the program went on to pursue PhDs in the field and are now professors.

"David took surface-wave theory from the rather primitive state in which it existed in the late 1960's to the point where a generalized seismic source could be embedded at any depth in an arbitrarily layered media and the response, including synthetic seismograms, calculated," says Professor of Geophysics Robert W. Clayton. "He was pioneer in the application of computer techniques to seismological problems."

"Although Harkrider's most widely known published works are on the excitation and propagation of surface waves in multi-layered media, his handwritten class notes on propagation of acoustic-gravity waves were very useful for seismologists who ventured into the field of acoustic-gravity waves from seismic waves," says Hiroo Kanamori, the John E. and Hazel S. Smits Professor of Geophysics, emeritus, and Harkrider's longtime colleague. "When I became interested in acoustic-gravity waves after the large eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, I studied his class notes in great detail. These notes are so unique that I am sure that many students must have benefitted a great deal from them. I wish they were published."

Harkrider, his family notes, was a "kind and generous man with a sharply irreverent wit who loved his family, his friends, his cats and dogs, and his research," and enjoyed football, golf, old musicals, Mexican food, martinis, and "Tabasco on everything." He is survived by his wife, Sara Brydges; daughter, Claire Harkrider Topp; son, John D. Harkrider; and by four grandchildren.

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David G. Harkrider, professor of geophysics, emeritus, passed away on Thursday, February 18, 2016.

A New Twist on the History of Life

The idea that the wholesale relocation of Earth's continents 520 million years ago, also known as "true polar wander," coincided with a burst of animal speciation in the fossil record dates back almost 20 years to an original hypothesis by Joseph Kirschvink (BS, MS '75), Caltech's Nico and Marilyn Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology, and his colleagues. For more than a century, paleontologists including Charles Darwin have debated whether the so-called Cambrian explosion—a rapid period of species diversification that began around 542 million years ago—was the equivalent of an evolutionary "big bang" of biological innovation, or just an artifact of the incomplete fossil record.

In a new study published in the December issue of the American Journal of Science, a team of researchers including Kirschvink and Ross Mitchell, a postdoctoral scholar in geology at Caltech, describes a new model showing that during the proposed Cambrian true polar wander event, most continents would have moved toward the equator instead of toward the poles.

"It's long been observed that biological diversity is highest in the tropics, where nutrients and energy tend to be abundant," says Kirschvink. "One of the side effects of true polar wander is that sea level rises near the equator but falls near the poles, so the equatorial migration of most Cambrian land masses would have enhanced diversification into previously lower-diversity environments."

Using a model they developed, the team simulated the pattern of continental migration during the Cambrian and found that their results can explain the distribution of Cambrian fossils.

"Our model provides an explanation for why the fossil record looks the way it does, with many Cambrian fossil groups on some continents but few on others," says study coauthor Tim Raub (BS, MS '02), a lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

"The same sea-level rise which flooded those continents that shifted to the tropics and opened new ecological niches for faster speciation also led to more fossil preservation," Mitchell says. "In contrast, the few areas that shifted to the poles became less biologically diverse and also lost rock volume to erosion following sea-level drops due to true polar wander."

The scientists say their new findings could help resolve the debate started so long ago by Darwin. If their theory is correct, the Cambrian explosion is both a true and dramatic pulse of biological innovation and an expression of preferentially preserved shells on selectively submerged continental margins capable of containing fossils.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

Modeling molecules at the microscale

Geobiologist Honored by National Academy of Sciences

Dianne Newman, professor of biology and geobiology at Caltech and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has been awarded the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Award in Molecular Biology for her "discovery of microbial mechanisms underlying geologic processes." The award citation recognizes her for "launching the field of molecular geomicrobiology" and fostering greater awareness of the important roles microorganisms have played and continue to play in how Earth evolved.

"Trust me, no one was more shocked than I was by this news," says Newman. "It really honors the many the exceptional people who have come through my lab over the years, as well as the geobiology field more broadly. Geobiology is a venerable old field, which offers many fascinating and important problems that would benefit from the attention of individuals trained in mechanistic research. Hopefully this award will encourage more young people from molecular and cellular biology to enter the field."

Newman's research focuses on the relationship between microorganisms and geologic processes. She has demonstrated that some bacteria in iron-rich environments, such soils and sediments, can utilize extracellular iron as a dump site for excess electrons by generating extracellular electron shuttles, including a class of metabolites formerly considered to be redox-active antibiotics. Newman has also made contributions to our understanding of other microbial metabolic processes of geological significance, including how microbes respire using arsenate instead of oxygen, and how they perform photosynthesis using iron rather than water. In addition, she and her coworkers have studied the mechanisms by which certain microbes make stromatolites and magnetosomes, two types of structures that leave biosignatures in ancient rocks. Perhaps most importantly, her team has demonstrated the power of applying genetic analysis to diverse organisms from iron-rich environments, paving the way for others to do the same.

Newman is now hoping to bring tools commonly used in geochemistry to facilitate environmentally-informed studies of pathogens in chronic infections. For example, in collaboration with Caltech professor of geobiology Alex Sessions and researchers at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Newman's group has characterized the composition and growth rate of pathogens in mucus collecting in the lungs of individuals with cystic fibrosis. Using this information, her lab is designing new experiments to reveal the survival mechanisms utilized by microorganisms—such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic bacterium that colonizes the lungs of these patients—in this environment.

The NAS Award in Molecular Biology was first given in 1962. It is presented with a medal and a $25,000 prize. Newman will receive the award on May 1, 2016, during the National Academy of Sciences' annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

Previous recipients of the award include David Baltimore, Caltech President Emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology.

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Dianne Newman has been awarded the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology.

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