Methane-eating bacteria in lake deep beneath Antarctic ice sheet may reduce greenhouse gas emissions

An interdisciplinary team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has concluded that bacteria in a lake 800 meters (2,600 feet) beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may digest methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, preventing its release into the atmosphere.

As part of the NSF-funded Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project, the researchers successfully drilled through the ice sheet in 2013 to reach Lake Whillans. They retrieved water and sediment samples from a body of water that had been isolated from direct contact with the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

The prevalence of methane-consuming bacteria in the upper lake sediment suggests a “methane biofilter” prevents the gas from entering the subglacial water, where it can eventually drain into the ocean and be released into the atmosphere. The bacteria obtain energy from digesting the methane.

The team, which includes researchers from Montana State University, Louisiana State University and Aberystwyth University in Wales, used a combination of measurements of methane concentrations and genomic analyses to describe how lake bacteria chemically convert methane in a way that reduces the warming potential of subglacial gases during ice sheet retreats.

The scientists say that if their analysis is correct, it could mean that a large reservoir of methane thought to lie under the vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet — which encompasses 25.4 million cubic kilometers (6.1 million cubic miles) of ice — is less likely to be released into the atmosphere.

They also note that because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, “understanding its global sources, sinks and feedbacks within the climate system is of considerable importance” to the scientific understanding of the larger global climate picture.

The team published its results today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Their findings describe how biological processes in the sediments at the lake bottom transform the methane into carbon dioxide. This area, where the water meets the lake bottom, may be vital to the success of ecosystems of subglacial lakes, which are permanently cut off from atmospheric heat and sunlight.

“Not only is this important for the global climate, but methane oxidation could be a widespread means of life for microbes in the deep, permanently cold biosphere beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” said Alexander Michaud of Montana State University, the lead author on the paper.

Studies of subglacial lakes may contain clues as to how microbial life might persist in the outer solar system, where ice-covered moons orbit the larger planets.

In recent decades, researchers, primarily using airborne radar and satellite laser observations, have discovered a continental system of rivers and lakes — some similar in size to North America’s Great Lakes — beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

Only a small portion of these lakes have been explored, largely to prevent contamination of a pristine ecosystem that may be interconnected in unknown ways. WISSARD researchers used a specially designed hot-water drill to make certain that the subglacial environment would remain pristine, and to prevent contamination of samples.

Results presented in the Lake Whillans paper imply that a vast microbial ecosystem capable of transforming key geochemical elements lies beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.

The WISSARD project was preceded by ongoing field research that began as early as 2007 to place this individual lake in context with the larger subglacial water system. The NSF’s U.S. Antarctic Program funded, and provided the complex logistics, for those investigations and the sampling of Lake Whillans.

“It took more than a decade of scientific and logistical planning to collect the first clean samples from an Antarctic subglacial environment, but the results have transformed the way we view the Antarctic continent,” said John Priscu of Montana State University, a co-author on the paper.

In addition to Michaud and Priscu, the research team included Trista Vick-Majors, John Dore and Mark Skidmore from Montana State University; Amanda Achberger and Brent Christner from Louisiana State University; and Andy Mitchell from Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Related Articles

Резултат с изображение за global mantle-scale convection patterns

Puzzling pockets of rock deep in Earth’s mantle

Michigan State University and Arizona State University geoscientists have used computer modeling to find an explanation for how pockets of mushy rock have accumulated at the boundary between Earth’s core and mantle. The relatively small rock bodies reside roughly 1800 miles below the surface. Known as “ultra-low velocity zones” because seismic waves greatly slow down […]
Read more
Hurricane Lane in the early morning hours on Wednesday near Hawaii. Picture: Ricky Arnold/Twitter

Astronaut tweets terrifying images of Hurricane Lane

US ASTRONAUT Richard Arnold has tweeted two terrifying images from space of Hurricane Lane as it swirled and spiralled toward the Hawaiian Islands. “#HurricaneLane in the early morning hours near #Hawaii” tweeted Arnold, who is aboard the International Space Station orbiting 402 kilometres above the Earth. “The crew of the @Space_Station sends much aloha to […]
Read more

Exercise sweat can charge your electronics

  When you workout, people say you burn a lot of energy. What if some of that could be harvested to power, say, your iPhone? A team of engineers from UC San Diego say they’ve developed stretchable fuel cells that can pull energy from sweat and can charge electronics. These aren’t the first so-called biofuel […]
Read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart Items

Empty cart

No products in the cart.

Return to Shop
Search for: