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Unstrange Phenomena

16 March 2010

New Finding Under Antarctic Ice: Stinky Greenhouse Gas Ready to Go Boom

Image: NASA

From Denny: When we think of Antarctica we think of frozen solid and a total wasteland. Well, waste is not far off in that line of thinking. Turns out those little microbe guys are churning out their fair share of that annoying greenhouse gas methane in the liquid water under Antarctica's massive ice sheet. Just what are you feeding them? :)

Right now scientists are just speculating because they don't know for certain. What they are thinking is that if that methane gas builds up and gets trapped over a long period of time, then when warmer temperatures come and start melting the ice sheet, they wonder if huge amounts of methane gas will be released. Just think of it like a sale on rotten meat in the hot sun at noon and you get the picture.

Image: Zina Deretsky/NSF

Apparently, scientists have not been much aware of what's been going on under the massive ice sheets. These methane producing microbes are called methanogens. A geochemist from the University of Bristol in England, by the name of Jemma Wadham, took a team out to grab samples in Antartica at the Lower Wright glacier. They also went to Greenland at the Russell glacier. She reported her findings at the American Geophysical Union conference on Antarctic lakes.

What they found trapped in the ice were very high concentrations of methane - and they also found methanogens - remember those microbe guys' proper name - at the rate of 10 million cells per gram in Antarctica. They were found at a lesser concentration of 100,000 cells per gram in Greenland.

How are these concentrations significant? "They are comparable to the amount of methanogens found in our deep-ocean sediments," she said. The species of microbes - yes, they are parsing it that much, they are scientists after all - well, these little guys are close cousins to those found in other polar regions like the Arctic peat or tundra areas.

Well, you know how curious scientists can be. They decided to farm the microbes by placing scrapings from both sites in Antartica and Greenland into bottles with water and incubate them. They wanted to know which ones might start growing.

What happened with the Antarctic samples? They were quiet for as long as 250 days and then suddenly they took off, producing loads of methane. Guess they were checking out the security of the place or if their new house had enough walk-in closets for storage.

The Greenland microbes did not produce as spectacularly. They thought they would give those guys a bit more time to pony up to the bar before giving up on them. Maybe those tiny guys in Greenland are too shy to show off like their Antarctic cousins.

Methanogens have been found in icy settings elsewhere like right here in North America in the Canadian Rockies at the Robertson glacier, as reported by Mark Skidmore, a microbiologist at Montant State University in Bozeman. "It underscores the importance of subglacial methanogenesis," according to Skidmore.

So far, scientists have found 386 lakes buried under the ice sheet, as reported by scientists from the University of Edinburgh. Of course, plans for major drilling projects are in the works.

For so long in the public mind - and the scientific one - we thought Antarctica to be a frozen static place. Recent studies are providing a new vision as a more dynamic and a watery environment.

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