, Volume 119, Issue 1–3, pp 1–24 | Cite as

The role of vegetation in methane flux to the atmosphere: should vegetation be included as a distinct category in the global methane budget?

  • M. J. CarmichaelEmail author
  • E. S. Bernhardt
  • S. L. Bräuer
  • W. K. Smith
Synthesis and Emerging Ideas


Currently, the global annual flux of methane (CH4) to the atmosphere is fairly well constrained at ca. 645 Tg CH4 year−1. However, the relative magnitudes of the fluxes generated from different natural (e.g. wetlands, deep seepage, hydrates, ocean sediments) and anthropogenic sources remain poorly resolved. Of the identified natural sources, the contribution of vegetation to the global methane budget is arguably the least well understood. Historically, reviews of the contribution of vegetation to the global methane flux have focused on the role of plants as conduits for soil-borne methane emissions from wetlands, or the aerobic production of methane within plant tissues. Many recent global budgets only include the latter pathway (aerobic methane production) in estimating the importance of terrestrial vegetation to atmospheric CH4 flux. However, recent experimental evidence suggests several novel pathways through which vegetation can contribute to the flux of this globally important, trace greenhouse gas (GHG), such as plant cisterns that act as cryptic wetlands, heartwood rot in trees, the degradation of coarse woody debris and litter, or methane transport through herbaceous and woody plants. Herein, we synthesize the existing literature to provide a comprehensive estimate of the role of modern vegetation in the global methane budget. This first, albeit uncertain, estimate indicates that vegetation may represent up to 22 % of the annual flux of methane to the atmosphere, contributing ca. 32–143 Tg CH4 year−1 to the global flux of this important trace GHG. Overall, our findings emphasize the need to better resolve the role of vegetation in the biogeochemical cycling of methane as an important component of closing the gap in the global methane budget.


Vegetation Methane Biogeochemistry C cycle 



The authors thank Marissa Lee for thoughtful comments on the first draft of this manuscript and the 2013 Biogeochemistry course participants at Duke University for stimulating discussion. We are also appreciative of the assistance of Stephen Owen in graphic design and Ed Dlugokencky of NOAA’s ESRL Global Monitoring Division for sharing atmospheric methane monitoring data, collected from 1983-present at the Mauna Loa Observatory. Support was provided for M.J. Carmichael by a Vecellio Grant from Wake Forest University and a North Carolina Sea Grant.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. J. Carmichael
    • 1
    Email author
  • E. S. Bernhardt
    • 2
  • S. L. Bräuer
    • 3
  • W. K. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyWake Forest UniversityWinston-SalemUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyAppalachian State UniversityBooneUSA

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