Isotopic signatures of methane emissions from tropical fires, agriculture and wetlands: The MOYA and ZWAMPS flights

Euan G. Nisbet*, Grant Allen, Rebecca E. Fisher, James L. France, James D. Lee, David Lowry, Marcos F. Andrade, Thomas J. Bannan, Patrick Barker, Prudence Bateson, Stéphane J.B. Bauguitte, Keith N. Bower, Tim J. Broderick, Francis Chibesakunda, Michelle Cain, Alice E. Cozens, Michael C. Daly, Anita L. Ganesan, Anna E. Jones, Musa LambakasaMark F. Lunt, Archit Mehra, Isabel Moreno, Dominika Pasternak, Paul I. Palmer, Carl J. Percival, Joseph R. Pitt, Amber J. Riddle, Matthew Rigby, Jacob T. Shaw, Angharad C. Stell, Adam R. Vaughan, Nicola J. Warwick, Shona E. Wilde

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We report methane isotopologue data from aircraft and ground measurements in Africa and South America. Aircraft campaigns sampled strong methane fluxes over tropical papyrus wetlands in the Nile, Congo and Zambezi basins, herbaceous wetlands in Bolivian southern Amazonia, and over fires in African woodland, cropland and savannah grassland. Measured methane δ 13 C CH 4 isotopic signatures were in the range -55 to -49‰ for emissions from equatorial Nile wetlands and agricultural areas, but widely -60 ± 1‰ from Upper Congo and Zambezi wetlands. Very similar δ 13 C CH 4 signatures were measured over the Amazonian wetlands of NE Bolivia (around -59‰) and the overall δ 13 C CH 4 signature from outer tropical wetlands in the southern Upper Congo and Upper Amazon drainage plotted together was -59 ± 2‰. These results were more negative than expected. For African cattle, δ 13 C CH 4 values were around -60 to -50‰. Isotopic ratios in methane emitted by tropical fires depended on the C3: C4 ratio of the biomass fuel. In smoke from tropical C3 dry forest fires in Senegal, δ 13 C CH 4 values were around -28‰. By contrast, African C4 tropical grass fire δ 13 C CH 4 values were -16 to -12‰. Methane from urban landfills in Zambia and Zimbabwe, which have frequent waste fires, had δ 13 C CH 4 around -37 to -36‰. These new isotopic values help improve isotopic constraints on global methane budget models because atmospheric δ 13 C CH 4 values predicted by global atmospheric models are highly sensitive to the δ 13 C CH 4 isotopic signatures applied to tropical wetland emissions. Field and aircraft campaigns also observed widespread regional smoke pollution over Africa, in both the wet and dry seasons, and large urban pollution plumes. The work highlights the need to understand tropical greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the goals of the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, and to help reduce air pollution over wide regions of Africa. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue 'Rising methane: is warming feeding warming? (part 2)'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20210112
Number of pages17
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2215
Early online date6 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
E.G.N. thanks the UK Natural Environment Research Council for grants: NE/S00159X/1 ZWAMPS Quantifying Methane Emissions in remote tropical settings: a new 3D approach. NE/N016238/1 MOYA The Global Methane Budget 2016–2020 and allied consortium grants in partner institutions, and also NE/P019641/1 New methodologies for removal of methane. The team thank the University of Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA research fund for supporting measurements in Kenya. Acknowledgements

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors.


  • African air pollution
  • African biomass burning
  • African wetlands
  • aircraft surveys
  • atmospheric methane
  • methane isotopes

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