A cautionary tale: a study of a methane enhancement over the North Sea

M. Cain, N. J. Warwick, R. E. Fisher, D. Lowry, M. Lanoisellé, E. G. Nisbet, J. France, J. Pitt, S. O'Shea, K. Bower, G. Allen, S. Illingworth, A. J. Manning, S. Bauguitte, I. Pisso, J. A. Pyle

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Airborne measurements of a methane (CH4) plume over the North Sea from August 2013 are analyzed. The plume was only observed downwind of circumnavigated gas fields, and three methods are used to determine its source. First, a mass balance calculation assuming a gas field source gives a CH4 emission rate between 2.5±0.8x104 and 4.6±1.5x104 kg h−1. This would be greater than the industry target of a 0.5% leak rate if it were emitting for more than half the time. Second, annual average UK CH4 emissions are combined with an atmospheric dispersion model to create pseudo-observations. Clean air from the North Atlantic passed over mainland UK, picking up anthropogenic emissions. To best explain the observed plume using pseudo-observations, an additional North Sea source from the gas rigs area is added. Third, the δ13C-CH4 from the plume is shown to be -53%0, which is lighter than fossil gas but heavier than the UK average emission. We conclude that either an additional small-area mainland source is needed, combined with temporal variability in emission or transport in small-scale meteorological features. Alternatively, a combination of additional sources that are at least 75% from the mainland (-58%0) and up to 25% from the North Sea gas rigs area (-32%0) would explain the measurements. Had the isotopic analysis not been performed, the likely conclusion would have been of a gas field source of CH4. This demonstrates the limitation of analysing mole fractions alone, as the simplest explanation is rejected based on analysis of isotopic data.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7630–7645
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres
Issue number14
Early online date19 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jul 2017


  • methane
  • stable carbon isotope
  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • dispersion modeling
  • methane flux
  • aircraft measurements

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