Every so often a scientific paper comes out that truly surprises. The results of Keppler et al in Nature this week is clearly one of those. They showed that a heretofore unrecognised process causes living plant material to emit methane (CH4, the second most important trace greenhouse gas), in quantities that appear to be very significant globally. This is surprising in two ways – firstly, CH4 emission is normally associated with anaerobic (oxygen-limited) environments (like swamps or landfills) but chemistry in plants is generally thought of as ‘aerobic’ i.e. not oxygen-limited, and secondly, because although the total budget for methane has some significant uncertainty associated with it (see the IPCC assessment here), the initial estimates of this effect (between 62–236 Tg/yr out of a total source of 500+ Tg/yr!) give numbers that might be difficult to incorporate without some significant re-evaluations elsewhere.
Reactions so far have been guarded, and there will undoubtedly be a scramble to check and refine the estimates of this process’s importance. Once the dust settles though, the situation may not be so different to before – some emissions may turn out to have been mis-identified, this source may not be as large as these initial estimates (10-30% of total sources) suggest, or it might radically challenge our current understanding of methane’s sources and sinks. However, the process by which this is decided will demonstrate clearly that the scientific method is alive and well in the climate sciences. That is, as long as a work is careful and the conclusions sound, papers that upset the apple cart can appear in the major journals and have a good chance of ending up being accepted by the rest of the field (providing the conclusions hold up of course!).
Update 19 Jan: The authors of the study have released a clarification of their study to counter some of the misleading conclusions that had appeared in the press.