According to ice core samples from Vostok in Antarctica, methane and carbon dioxide levels seem to have risen and fallen at around the same time over a 450 thousand year period.

I was unable to find any article or explanation on why the levels of individual greenhouse gases in the past seem to coincide. Could someone please offer an explanation for this?


CO2 and methane both have natural feedback loops that can cause increasing temprature to release more of both, which in turn causes more warming which causes more release and so on and so forth. This is one of the big worries about human caused greenhouse gasses, that they will trigger these feedback loops causing far more drastic warming. Negative feedback loops also exist so making it colder can trap more or release less of these gases. I will give a few examples of those feedback loops.

Methane hydrates, A lot of the seafloor has methane hydrates trapped in the sediment, if you warm that material it releases methane gas, a lot of it. This material builds up very slowly but can be released very quickly, so there is plenty available to warming water to release. Higher pressure can mitigate this but the temprature has a stronger effect than pressure from rising sea levels. Of course if you cool the sea more of this methane is trapped as hydrates reducing the amount in the atmosphere.

Permafrost also contains methane hydrates and other organics, the cold and ice keeps them inactive and trapped but warming it triggers the release of both methane and trapped carbon (which is released as CO2). so as the polar regions warm the release out these stored gasses, if they get colder they trap more it.

Biology, there is a really interesting feedback loop in microbial life, ocean and wetland life in particular respond to warmer temperatures by releasing more CO2(or absorbing less), how much is difficult to estimate but that they do increase CO2 has been repeatedly confirmed even if weak on a geological time scale this will quickly add up.

This effect is much stronger in wetlands and wetlands have the additional effect of releasing more methane with warming temprature at the same time, Methanogenesis. additionally they also convert CO2 into methane and how much is based on CO2 concentration and temprature, so increasing CO2 will result in more methane directly.

Ocean circulation, warming the planet changes ocean circulation patterns, and the current pattern with a lot of mixing due to wide differences in temperature. is really good at absorbing methane and CO2 into sediment and microorganisms. warmer oceans result in less mixing which means less gases released by other means getting absorbed.

On a geologic scale the movement of continents can affect all of these, so that adds one more thing that will tend to change both in the same ways.

  • $\begingroup$ It is not maybe one driving the other? As CO2, drives the increase in atmospheric H2O through the increase in temperature. So maybe CO2 might be driving the increase in Methane. $\endgroup$ – Camilo Rada Feb 18 '18 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ @CamiloRada increased atmospheric H20 is caused by an increase in the saturation point, methane is nowhere near its saturation point, also the H2O increase is minimal. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 19 '18 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ OK, but what I meant is maybe that any increase in temperature will trigger the increase in methane release. So maybe it is the CO2 increasing the temperature and then, as a consequence, the release of methane, therefore increasing methane concentration. $\endgroup$ – Camilo Rada Feb 19 '18 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your thorough and detailed answer. Based on this answer, I found that searching "climate change feedback loops" seem to return the best results for those wanting to read more. I couldn't find a single result previously. $\endgroup$ – WeavingBird1917 Feb 20 '18 at 3:45

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