COLLEGE STATION, Nov. 27, 2013 – The transfer of methanol from the atmosphere to the oceans is a key process that can affect Earth’s environment and climate, according to a team of researchers that include a visiting Texas A&M University professor from England.
Peter Liss, a faculty member of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, who is serving as a visiting Faculty Fellow at Texas A&M, is part of an acclaimed group of Nobel Laureates, Wolf Medal recipients, National Academies members and distinguished professors, among others.
Liss is one of the authors of a paper describing the uptake of methanol by the oceans that appears in the current online edition of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
Methanol is released into the atmosphere in a variety of natural processes including decaying trees and plants, and also by industrial emissions and biomass burning. The team measured air to sea methanol transfer over a 6,000-mileship’s voyage, from the United Kingdom to South America, and found that methanol concentrations near and under the water surface were lower than expected.
Most of the methanol was likely consumed by marine microbes, the authors contend.
“In the atmosphere methanol acts as a natural cleansing agent for organic pollutants,” Liss explains.
“The methanol helps break down organic material. In this regard, it is part of the process that cleans the air we breathe so providing a service to us that we still don’t fully understand and possibly don’t appreciate.”
Using the research ship James Cook, Liss says the team measured methanol readings over the Atlantic from Southampton in the UK to Punta Arenas, Chile.
They measured the air-to-sea flux process and concentrations of methanol in air and seawater throughout the region. From this data, they calculated that from 18 to 23 percent of the methanol in the atmosphere was removed by uptake by the surface oceans.
“This implies a fairly rapid rate of oceanic destruction of methanol,” Liss says.
“We find that methanol transfer to the oceans is largely a one-way depositional process which was unexpected and still needs to be explained. We also need to learn more about the removal of methanol from the atmosphere into tne oceans and how it relates to Earth’s other natural processes.”
The project was funded by the National Science Foundation and the UK National Environment Research Council.