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Helium accumulates in the atmosphere

Careful measurements have shown that the Earth’s atmosphere over several decades contains more and more helium, which comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. This gas does not contribute to global warming, but its concentration may indicate the level of global fuel use.

In the pages of the journal Nature Geoscience (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-022-00932-3) researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego (USA) report on the increased concentration of helium in atmosphere since at least 1974.

Using micro-mass spectrometry, the scientists have examined 46 air samples from different time periods since then. The concentration of helium, specifically helium-4 (an isotope) is increasing in the Earth’s atmosphere because it is released during the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. It is formed during radioactive decay that occurs in the earth’s interior and accumulates in the same places as fuels, in particular natural gas. The increase is slight, but this is the first time it has been recorded.

This breakthrough is the result of the development of a highly accurate measurement method based on a technology called mass spectrometry. The researchers compared its concentration to that of nitrogen, which is a constant. Co-author of the study, Ralph Keeling – known for the Keeling curve that describes carbon dioxide concentration – described the published findings as a “masterpiece of basic geology.”

The expert asserts that although chemists were already able to detect helium concentrations at the level of 5 parts per million, it was not possible to achieve the accuracy that would allow monitoring changes in the concentration of this element in the atmosphere. “The main impetus was to resolve the long-running debate in the scientific community about atmospheric helium concentrations,” said lead researcher Dr. Benny Berner.

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The authors of the discovery stress that helium alone does not affect the climate as greenhouse gases, but it may indicate the level of extraction and use of fossil fuels.

The achievement is also intended to help study another isotope – helium-3, which could theoretically be used, among other things, in nuclear fusion or cryogenics.

According to previous data, the ratio of the concentrations of helium-4 and helium-3 in the Earth’s atmosphere is constant. This means that helium-3 levels have also increased over the years.

Marek Matakz

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