Study: Greenhouse gas impact of hydroelectric project reservoirs downgraded

An international team of scientists has amassed the largest data set to date on greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectric reservoirs. Their analysis, published in the online version of Nature Geoscience, posits that these human-made systems emit about one sixth of the carbon dioxide and methane previously attributed to them.

Prior studies based on more limited data cautioned that hydroelectric reservoirs could be a significant and large source of both carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere.

Through an analysis of 85 globally-distributed hydroelectric reservoirs, the authors revealed that these systems emit 48 million metric tons of carbon annually, a downgrade from earlier estimates of 321 million metric tons. Further putting things in perspective, hydroelectric reservoirs are responsible for less than 16 percent of the total carbon dioxide and methane emissions from all types of human-made reservoirs combined.

"Our analysis indicates that hydroelectric reservoirs are not major contributors to the greenhouse gas problem," comments Dr. Jonathan Cole, a limnologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and one of the paper's authors. "But there are some caveats. To date, only 17 percent of potential hydroelectric reservoir sites have been exploited, and impacts vary based on reservoir age, size, and location."

Carbon dioxide and methane are two of the main greenhouse gases created by human activities. Carbon dioxide is produced during the combustion of nearly any organic material; methane has a variety of industrial sources. Both gases are also produced naturally, particularly in wetlands and lakes.

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