Effect of increasing atmospheric methane concentration on ammonium inhibition of soil methane consumption

Gary M. King, University of Maine
Sylvia Schnell, University of Maine


Soils currently consume about 30-40 Tg methane per year1,2, which is comparable to the net annual increase in atmospheric methane concentration from 1980 to 19903. Most soils consume methane 2,4-9, but the extent varies with soil water content, land use and ammonium inputs5,10-13. Ammonium concentrations in many soils have increased in recent years as a result of land-use changes and increases in ammonium concentration in precipitation14,15. Ammonium strongly inhibits soil methane consumption, but the mechanism is uncertain. Even if enhanced ammonium concentrations are subsequently reduced, inhibition can still persist for months to years12,13. Here we show, from field and laboratory experiments, that the extent of ammonium inhibition increases with increasing methane concentration. We propose that nitrite formation from methanotrophic ammonium oxidation accounts for much of the observed inhibition, and that the persistence of inhibition with reduced ammonium concentrations is due to the limited capacity of methanotrophs to grow or recover in present concentrations of atmospheric methane. We suggest that past increases in atmospheric methane concentration may have increased the inhibitory effect of ammonium, thereby decreasing soil methane uptake capacity, and that this mechanism could also provide a positive feedback on future atmospheric methane concentrations. © 1994 Nature Publishing Group.