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Methane-eating microbes may curb gas emissions as Antarctic ice sheets melt

"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," researcher Brent Christner said.

By
Brooks Hays
As Antarctic ice sheets melt, methane is likely to be released. But new research suggests hungry microbes could prevent the gas from entering the atmosphere. Photo by Jim Yungel/NASA
As Antarctic ice sheets melt, methane is likely to be released. But new research suggests hungry microbes could prevent the gas from entering the atmosphere. Photo by Jim Yungel/NASA

July 31 (UPI) -- Studies have shown that as ice sheets in Antarctica melt, trapped methane gasses will be released. But new research suggests methane-eating microbes will limit gaseous emissions.

When researchers analyzed water and sediment samples from Antarctica's subglacial Whillans Lake -- a first -- they determined microbes consume 99 percent of methane released into the lake.

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Some climate scientists have argued global warming predictions fail to account for the greenhouse gas effect of methane released by melting glaciers and permafrost, but the latest findings -- detailed this week in the journal Nature Geoscience -- suggest microbes will play a mitigating role.

"This is an environment that most people look at and don't think it could ever really directly impact us," Brent Christner, a University of Florida microbiologist, said in a news release. "But this is a process that could have climatic implications."

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Though CO2 remains the primary driver of global warming, methane has a greenhouse gas effect 30 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. With an estimated 100 trillion cubic meters of methane trapped beneath Antarctic ice, scientists have been concerned the melting of the Antarctic could trigger a feedback loop of warming and melting.

The presence of gas-eating microbes deep beneath Antarctica's surface suggests microorganisms are likely to play a role in curbing the amount of gas released by melting ice sheets. How large of a role remains a matter of debate.

"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 said.

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Researchers plan to analyze the presence of microbes in other subglacial lakes.

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