Methane is a major greenhouse gas, but one that is less well-known and understood than carbon dioxide. The first comprehensive look at the Earth’s methane budget, compiled by more than 50 scientists, was released December 12 in Environmental Research Letters and Earth System Science Data. According to Ben Poulter, one of the papers’ authors, “We know that methane levels in the atmosphere have risen 150% since before the Industrial Revolution; but there is uncertainty with the multiple sources of methane and how these sources contribute to variability in the growth of methane in the atmosphere, including a surprisingly rapid increase that began in 2014.” Uncertainty can be a challenging concept to communicate.
• Interested in Poulter’s work to investigate and quantify the sources of methane? Join the Reddit Ask Me Anything on December 12 at 5:00 pm Eastern Time.
Poulter is currently a research scientist at NASA Goddard and was previously an assistant professor of ecology at Montana State University. He applied to the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute last year to hone his public engagement and communication skills. “Are we providing the most relevant scientific information for policymakers and the public?” he asks. The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute trains and networks 15 mid-career scientists each year, building confidence in their science communication skills, developing relationships with policymakers and other audiences, and building capacity for more scientists to engage with publics.
Asked for advice to other scientists interested in engaging with the public, Poulter says, “Let your enthusiasm and passion for your science and the importance of your work as it relates to societal issues help you be persistent in overcoming the challenges. Remind yourself that if you do not take on the responsibility for public engagement, then who will?”
Poulter’s Ecosystem Dynamics Lab at Montana State University and his research at NASA explore the interaction of plant life cycle events and how ecosystems respond to changes in climate, atmospheric gas concentrations, and land cover. The new global methane budget report explains the known sources (where it comes from) and sinks (where it goes) of atmospheric methane during 2000-2012. Although atmospheric methane concentrations remained relatively stable from 2000 to 2006, rapid increases were seen in 2007 and then again in 2014. The report provides a methodology for future annual assessments, including understanding the recent observed increase in methane concentrations in 2014. Poulter says that annual assessments and presentation of data are critical for rapid interpretation as well as educating decision-makers and informing policy.
Poulter sees a need to communicate with diverse audiences about the complexity of identifying methane sources and interactions with natural systems. As a greenhouse gas, methane traps more heat than carbon dioxide but its lifespan in the atmosphere is about 12 years, unlike the 100 years carbon dioxide may stay in the atmosphere. Clarifying the science and understanding where uncertainty lies when looking at greenhouse gases is the type of information decision-makers can consider in evaluating policies for adapting to or mitigating the impacts of climate change. For example, reducing emissions may provide at least short-term opportunities for mitigation of climate impacts.
Poulter continues to work on his public engagement and communication skills at NASA while conducting research on carbon and methane budgets in land-based ecosystems.