Bacteria Battles Climate Change
Methane is one of the most warming gases known to man, but fortunately we have microscopic assistance to help us in the fight against climate change.
Studies have just shown that, half a mile beneath the Antarctic’s frozen surface, thrive bacteria that eat methane. The significance of this is that one of the main worries of global warming — that as ice sheets melt more methane will be released, as frozen vegetation and gases trapped in glaciers are uncovered — may actually be mitigated against by nature’s own processes.
This process has been uncovered after a study published in Nature Geoscience showed the fate of methane as it moved under the ice of Antarctica’s subglacial Whillans Lake. This is viewed as an important study in the context of warming gases as methane is 30 times stronger than carbon dioxide in terms of atmospheric warming.
The worry is that, as ice melts in Antarctica, huge amounts of methane could be released and so contribute to the ‘tipping point’ where global warming is unavoidable after a certain temperature threshold is reached.
Interestingly the bacteria is situated so deep underwater that it receives no sunlight, which has traditionally been seen as vital for life. Instead the microbes convert methane into carbon dioxide for energy. Of course, CO2 is one of the main warming gases, but it is still less damaging than methane when it comes to global warming.
In the study scientists drilled 800 metres through the ice and found this bacteria that consumed huge amounts of methane. Brent Christner, a University of Florida microbiologist and co-author on the study, said: “This is an environment that most people look at and don’t think it could ever really directly impact us, but this is a process that could have climatic implications.”
He added: “There’s been a lot of concern about the amount of methane that’s beneath these ice sheets because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to it.”
Christner is continuing his research, with new drilling investigations for next winter.