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Methane gyrations last 2,000 years show human influnece on atmosphere

0 to 1600, when anthropologists say indigenous humans in South and Central America -- who had been expanding in population and range -- declined by 90 percent. Since most forests in Europe and China had been mostly cleared for agricultural or habitable lands by 1 A.D., "the seemingly small indigenous populations of the Americas would have had a disproportionate influence on anthropogenic methane emissions from fires," the researchers wrote in Science.

The study is important because methane increases have had the second highest impact on climate change over the past 250 years behind carbon dioxide, accounting for about 20 percent of the warming from all greenhouse gas increases, White said. Methane is more powerful than carbon dioxide in slowing the release of radiated heat away from Earth, he said.

About 60 percent of atmospheric methane is generated from human-related activities, according to the International Panel on Climate Change. Methane increases in the past 200 years are due to increased burning of grasslands, forests and wood fuels, more intense livestock activity and rice cultivation and gas leaked from fossil fuel production and waste management. In addition, natural sources of methane include wetlands, termites and wildfires.

Overall methane levels in the atmosphere increased about 2 percent from about 1 A.D. to 1000 and decreased by 2 percent from 1000 to 1700, according to the study. Since the 1700s, the levels have increased by nearly 300 percent, said White.

Surprisingly, the study showed the amount of methane produced from burning was about the same 1,000 years ago as it is today, said White. "There has been a nave idea out there that humans were just passive, pastoral passengers on the planet up until just a few hundred years ago," he said. "We have shown that is not the case."

The study also suggests that natural climate change has played a role in changing methane levels in the atmosphere, at le
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8-Sep-2005


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