Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Distribution and origin of dissolved methane, ethane and propane in shallow groundwater of Lower Saxony, Germany

Volume 67, April 2016, Pages 118–132


Baseline concentration of CH4, C2H6 & C3H8 in 1000 groundwater wells were determined.
Dissolved methane concentrations cover a range of ∼7 orders of magnitude.
Ethane and propane have been detected in a subset of our samples.
Mean δ13C of methane is −70‰ vs PDB with a large variation between −110‰ and +20‰.


More than 90% of Germany's domestic natural gas production and reserves are located in Lower Saxony, North Germany. Recently, research has been intensified with respect to unconventional shale gas, revealing a large additional resource potential in northern Germany. However, many concerns arise within the general public and government/political institutions over potential groundwater contamination from additional gas wells through hydraulic fracturing operations.
In order to determine the naturally occurring background methane concentrations, ∼1000 groundwater wells, covering ∼48 000 km2, have been sampled and subsequently analyzed for dissolved methane, ethane and propane and the isotopic composition of methane (δ13C).
Dissolved methane concentrations cover a range of ∼7 orders of magnitude between the limit of quantification at ∼20 nl/l and 60 ml/l. The majority of groundwater wells exhibit low concentrations (<1 μl/l), a small number of samples (65) reveal concentration in the range >10 ml/l. In 27% of all samples ethane and in 8% ethane and propane was detected. The median concentration of both components is generally very low (ethane 50 nl/l, propane 23 nl/l).
Concentrations reveal a bimodal distribution of the dissolved gas, which might mirror a regional trend due to different hydrogeological settings. The isotopic composition of methane is normally distributed (mean ∼ −70‰ vs PDB), but shows a large variation between −110‰ and +20‰. Samples with δ13C values lower than −55‰ vs PDB (66%) are indicative for methanogenic biogenic processes. 5% of the samples are unusually enriched in 13C (≥25‰ vs PDB) and can best be explained by microbial methane oxidation.
According to a standard diagnostic diagram based on methane δ13C values and the ratio of methane over the sum over ethane plus propane (“Bernard”-diagram) less than 4% of the samples plot into the diagnostic field of typical thermogenic natural gases. However, in most cases only ethane has been detected and the remaining less than 15 samples demonstrate an uncommon ratio of ethane to propane compared to typical thermogenic hydrocarbons. These data do not suggest a migration of deeper sourced gases, but a thermogenic source cannot be excluded entirely for some samples. However, ethane and propane can also be generated by microbial processes and might therefore represent ubiquitous background groundwater abundances of these gases. Nevertheless, our data suggest that due to the exceedingly low concentration of ethane and propane, respective concentration changes might prove to be a more sensitive parameter than methane to detect possible migration of deeper sourced (thermally generated) hydrocarbons into a groundwater aquifer.


  • Dissolved hydrocarbon concentration
  • Groundwater
  • Baseline
  • Lower Saxony (Germany)
  • Carbon isotopes
Corresponding author.