Of the greenhouse gases, methane has the third greatest overall effect on climate after carbon dioxide and water vapor. And the longer it stays in the atmosphere, the more heat it traps. That's why it's essential for climate models to properly represent how long methane lasts before it's broken down. That happens when a methane molecule reacts with a hydroxyl radical -- an oxygen atom bound to a hydrogen atom, represented as OH -- in a process called oxidation. Hydroxyl radicals also destroy other hazardous air pollutants.
"OH is really the most central oxidizing agent in the lower atmosphere. It controls the lifetime of nearly every reactive gas," explains Wolfe, an assistant research professor at UMBC's Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology. However, "globally, we don't have a way to directly measure OH." More than that, it's well understood that current climate models struggle to accurately simulate OH. With existing methods, scientists can infer OH at a coarse scale, but there is scant information on the where, when, and why of variations in OH.
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New research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and led by Wolfe puts scientists on the path to changing that. Wolfe and colleagues have developed a unique way to infer how global OH concentrations vary over time and in different regions. Better understanding of OH levels can help scientists understand how much of the ups and downs in global methane levels are due to changing emissions, such as from oil and natural gas production or wetlands, versus being caused by changing levels of OH.
NASA satellites have been measuring atmospheric formaldehyde concentrations for over 15 years. Wolfe's new research relies on that data, plus new observations collected during NASA's recent Atmospheric Tomography (ATom) mission. ATom has flown four around-the-world circuits, sampling air with the aid of...
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