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Exploratory Area: Natural System Response

Spark is exploring how we can help to advance our understanding of, and ability to respond to, natural system responses, including climate feedbacks and possible tipping elements.

There’s evidence that methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide emissions from natural systems are already rising as a result of climate change, driving further warming, and will likely be exacerbated further with every fraction of a degree—yet these dynamics are not yet captured in the climate models that we depend on for projecting future scenarios.

Spark is exploring how we can help to advance our understanding of, and ability to respond to, natural system responses like these.

What is it?

As a result of climate change, multiple natural systems are going through profound changes, some of which also result in releasing more greenhouse gases. These "climate feedbacks" further exacerbate climate change.

Changing temperatures, precipitation patterns, rising sea levels, and other impacts from climate change are further affecting natural systems, such as thawing permafrost and tropical wetlands.

These systems hold large potential for increased greenhouse gas emissions. Understanding the drivers of these natural emissions and how they will evolve under a warming world is critical if we are to return to a safe and stable climate.  

Methane Feedbacks

Methane feedbacks are a particular concern due to their high potential to drive further warming: wetland methane emissions are expected to increase with rising temperatures and could offset up to 25-40% of pledged anthropogenic methane emission reductions.

Unfortunately, methane concentrations are not only rising, but accelerating. While we don’t currently have a full understanding of the process drivers of these rising emissions, there is a growing body of evidence that part of this trend is driven by elevated natural methane emissions.

The two primary natural systems expected to most significantly increase methane emissions are tropical wetlands and permafrost thaw.

Tropical wetlands systems appear to be emitting more methane as a result of climate-change induced precipitation and temperature changes, driving further warming.

A similar permafrost feedback likely exists in the Arctic where human-induced warming destabilizes permafrost allowing previously trapped carbon in the form of methane and carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere.

Unmodeled Risks

Expected methane feedbacks aren't included in climate models, leading to underestimates of future warming.

Projected increases in natural emissions have not been accounted for in climate models and scenarios, including IPCC models, therefore likely underestimating expected future warming. This means our modeled mitigation scenarios will likely prove insufficient in reducing warming within given guardrails.

What do we need to do?

We urgently need a deeper understanding of both the source and mechanisms driving the increase in natural emissions.

Much of this work centers around addressing geographic gaps in existing methane monitoring and measurement networks.

Doing so will support:

  1. Ensuring natural emissions are adequately represented in global climate models and the IPCC process
  2. Better predicting future emissions and temperature trajectories
  3. Ensuring that anthropogenic emission reduction targets are reflective of rising natural emissions  

It is imperative that this knowledge comes in addition to aggressively reducing anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.  

Spark’s Approach

Spark is exploring the space of Natural System Response and Tipping Elements to understand how progress in this area might be accelerated before investing in full program creation.

We are talking to scientific experts in the field, mapping data gaps and research bottlenecks, and identifying areas ripe for support to unlock more rapid progress. Our current areas of focus include natural emissions of methane from the tropics and the Arctic.

Reach out

We want to hear from you! Do you have ideas of places that need more attention, expert convening, or coordination around natural system response? Please reach out. We love all flavors of input.

Contact Us

Frequently Asked Questions

What percent of methane comes from natural versus anthropogenic sources?
What are the major sources of natural methane?
How are natural methane sources changing?
Are most of the natural emissions of methane coming from the Arctic?
Why are the tropics the major source of methane?  
What is driving the increase in natural emissions of methane?
Why is it so hard to determine how much methane comes from natural sources versus anthropogenic sources?
What solutions currently exist for natural emissions of methane?
We can’t/shouldn’t do anything about natural emissions so why bother measuring or studying  them?


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