Claim: Recently discovered Arctic microbe is key player in climate change

From the University of Arizona

As permafrost soils thaw under the influence of global warming, communities of soil microbes act as potent amplifiers of global climate change, an international study has shown.

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This is the study site, Stordalen Mire in Abisko National Park in Sweden, just north of the Arctic Circle. Credit: Scott Saleska

Tiny soil microbes are among the world’s biggest potential amplifiers of human-caused climate change, but whether microbial communities are mere slaves to their environment or influential actors in their own right is an open question. Now, research by an international team of scientists from the U.S., Sweden and Australia, led by University of Arizona scientists, shows that a single species of microbe, discovered only very recently, is an unexpected key player in climate change.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, should help scientists improve their simulations of future climate by replacing assumptions about the different greenhouse gases emitted from thawing permafrost with new understanding of how different communities of microbes control the release of these gases.

Earlier this year, the international team discovered that a single species of microbe, previously undescribed by science, was prominent in permafrost soils in northern Sweden that have begun to thaw under the effect of globally rising temperatures. Researchers suspected that it played a significant role in global warming by liberating vast amounts of carbon stored in permafrost soil close to the Arctic Circle in the form of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. But the actual role of this microbe — assigned the preliminary name Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis, which roughly translates to “methane-bloomer from the Stordalen Mire” — was unknown.

The new research nails down the role of the new microbe, finding that the sheer abundance of Methanoflorens, as compared to other microbial species in thawing permafrost, should help to predict their collective impact on future climate change.

“If you think of the African savanna as an analogy, you could say that both lions and elephants produce carbon dioxide, but they eat different things,” said senior author Scott Saleska, an associate professor in the UA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the UA’s new Ecosystem Genomics Institute. “In Methanoflorens, we discovered the microbial equivalent of an elephant, an organism that plays an enormously important role in what happens to the whole ecosystem.”

Significantly, the study revealed that because of these microbial activities, all wetlands are not the same when it comes to methane release.

IMAGE: In this image, lead author Carmody McCalley installs equipment to measure the production of greenhouse gases by soil microbes during her postdoctoral research in Scott Saleska’s group.

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“The models assume a certain ratio between different forms, or isotopes, of the carbon in the methane molecules, and the actual recorded ratio turns out to be different,” said lead author Carmody McCalley, a scientist at the Earth Systems Research Center at the University of New Hampshire who conducted the study while she was a postdoctoral researcher at UA. “This has been a major shortcoming of current climate models. Because they assume the wrong isotope ratio coming out of the wetlands, the models overestimate carbon released by biological processes and underestimate carbon released by human activities such as fossil-fuel burning.”

Soil microbes can make methane two different ways: either from acetate, an organic molecule that comes from plants, or from carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

“Both processes produce energy for the microbe, and the microbe breathes out methane like we breathe out carbon dioxide,” McCalley said. “But we find that in thawing permafrost, most methane initially doesn’t come from acetate as previously assumed, but the other pathway. This ratio then shifts towards previous estimates as the frozen soils are turned into wetlands and acetate becomes the preferred carbon source.”

One of the big questions facing climate scientists, according to Saleska, is how much of the carbon stored in soils is released into the atmosphere by microbial activity.

“As the ‘global freezer’ of permafrost is failing under the influence of warming, we need to better understand how soil microbes release carbon on a larger, ecosystem-wide level and what is going to happen with it,” he said.

Said UA co-author Virginia Rich: “For years, there’s been a debate about whether microbial ecology ‘matters’ to what an ecosystem collectively does — in this case, releasing greenhouse gases of different forms — or whether microbes are just slaves to the system’s physics and chemistry. This work shows that microbial ecology matters to a great degree, and that we need to pay more attention to the types of microbes living in those thawing ecosystems.”

IMAGE: The researchers installed special instruments for measuring fluxes using Plexiglas chambers that periodically set themselves down over the surface and trap the gases emanating from the soil.

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Added McCalley: “By taking microbial ecology into account, we can accurately set up climate models to identify how much methane comes from thawing permafrost versus other sources such as fossil-fuel burning.”

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The paper was co-authored by: Richard Wehr in the UA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Eun-Hae Kim in the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science; Gene Tyson, Ben Woodcroft and Rhiannon Mondav of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia; Suzanne Hodgkins and Jeffrey Chanton of Florida State University; and Patrick Crill at the University of Stockholm, Sweden.

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89 thoughts on “Claim: Recently discovered Arctic microbe is key player in climate change

  1. Would the result be the same under naturally-occurring climate change / warming? Cause it only covers man-made change. Or is that simply the early reference to the thing that got them funding so they could study microbes in the Artcic?

  2. ““The models assume a certain ratio between different forms, or isotopes, of the carbon in the methane molecules, and the actual recorded ratio turns out to be different,”
    I guess that means the older models are all no good. But we already knew that. Thanks for the confirmation.

    • So why not assume in the models, the actual recorded carbon isotope ratios, rather than using ” certain ratio” ??
      Evidently, it is a very uncertain ratio.

  3. “Tiny soil microbes are among the world’s biggest potential amplifiers of human-caused climate change…”

    Setting out their stall early. lol. And I thought it was supposed to be the water vapor feedback that was supposed to fry us (perhaps “poach” us would be a better verb).
    Whatever. That they think the carbon isotope ratios are not always to be relied upon in a biochemical context is a welcome admission, even if the thought was late coming to them. That’s the problem with the real world. Tricksy it is. Much easier to just model it in silico and forget the carbon chemistry.

  4. So this microbe went from unknown to world killer rather quickly. So how did they end up entombed in permafrost?

    • Remember when they found “The Thing” frozen in the Arctic ice pack? Remember what happened when they thawed it out?

      • That was a great flick from the 1950’s; the golden age of very cheesy (and unintentionally hilarious) monster, dragon, and alien flicks. Even Bela Lugosi was in a few of them.
        Perhaps as the ice melts in the arctic (has that ever happened before prior to the industrial revolution?? Nah; only humans cause ice ages to end) they will find “pods” of human forms, lying in gelatin, with irregular pinkie fingers.

  5. ” and that we need to pay more attention to the types of microbes living in those thawing ecosystems”
    ≤<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>
    Seems that the study was inconclusive. Soil microbes everywhere produce methane, nothing new here. The ecosystem thawed because tundra thaws in the summer, but they had to give the obligatory lie: climate change.
    This comes across as a pitch for funding.

  6. Why don’t they admit. They don’t have a clue. The earth is not warming anymore. But they still want the funding.

  7. The anaerobic microbial flora of the arctic are also producing large amounts of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which will eventually stimulate formation of clouds according to CERN research. The science isn’t settled.

    • Exactly. This annoyed me,

      …prominent in permafrost soils in northern Sweden that have begun to thaw under the effect of globally rising temperatures.

      No. They can only be melted by the local temperatures.
      The weather in San Jose has no direct impact on Sweden.
      This is a complete logic fail that, purely coincidentally, helps with raising their funding.

    • It is called global warming because the vast majority of the globe is uninhabited, and according to the maps all of the warming tends to happen where people don’t actually live.

  8. so the morons start out with the biggest assumption of all….
    .. As permafrost soils thaw under the influence of global warming,

  9. “Because they assume the wrong isotope ratio coming out of the wetlands, the models overestimate carbon released by biological processes and underestimate carbon released by human activities such as fossil-fuel burning.”
    Hmm, the consensus of 97% of Climate Scientists(tm) already says that most, if not all, of the increase in CO2 is man-made. Now this study says that “THE MODELS…underestimate carbon released by human activities such as fossil-fuel burning.” D*mn, no matter what happens it’s always:
    It’s worse than we thought!

  10. Is there any way to find out what the amount of funding for this study is?
    Also what is the source of the funding?
    What about similar studies, how do you find how they are funded and how much?
    There is no funding stats in the links provided.

    • The amount of funding should not be a big issue to us.
      To me, this looks like very good science and will go a long way towards increasing our understanding of very complex processes.
      The conclusions initially drawn may turn out to be another matter, but in the long run more and similar work will add to our understanding of the bigger picture. (Note the recent discovery of vast numbers of “methane eaters” in subsea rocks.)

      • “The amount of funding should not be a big issue to us.”
        So is it $100 or $10,000 or $100,000?
        I just wanted to compare the funding for this paper compared to the “Watts et al. 2012 draft paper” which is also good science.
        I think it is a big issue…
        In the world that I view things of importance…

      • markx
        October 22, 2014 at 5:43 pm
        “The amount of funding should not be a big issue to us.”
        Well it’s a big issue to me if it is coming out of my tax dollars that I pay to the government…

    • The funding is listed as being as follows:
      “This study was funded by the Genomic Science Program of the United States Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research, grant DE-SC0004632.”
      I’m sure that knowing the grant number it will be possible for you to find out the amount.

  11. whether microbial communities are mere slaves to their environment or influential actors in their own right is an open question.
    ======
    primitive life evolved the ability to regulate climate over billions of years. the rest of us are just passengers.

    • How about, primitive life produced (most of) the atmosphere we now breathe, and we thank them for it ?
      If they stick around, we might take them for a ride.

  12. But the models were perfect.
    Reality was to be “adjusted” if a conflict arose.
    Never mind the microbes, frozen in the layers of permafrost are mosquito larva dating back to the era of the wooly mammoth, if these little darlings thaw out,expect mass extinctions in the high arctic.
    And they live, core samples into the permafrost start to wriggle as they thaw in the sun.

  13. She says that the ratios are wrong..does not list what the isotopes are and what’s changed about them…….while admitting all wetlands are not the same…makes a prediction of how it will effect GCMs, which is impossible since she has not included all wetlands…and on and on
    I predict this one will make it through peer…be grabbed by people wanting to hear this….and fall apart quietly at a later date

    • I suggest that you read the affiliations of the authors given in the link to the paper where the international nature of the study is made clear.

  14. My immediate thought is what eats the microbes? If their predators increase in numbers and so on – maybe there will be a rapid increase in fauna and flora and the net result is another CO2 repository like a peat bog or a proto-coal or oil strata?
    Just surmising, maybe someone with more knowledge in these areas can comment?

  15. ‘The researchers installed special instruments for measuring fluxes using Plexiglas chambers that periodically set themselves down over the surface and trap the gases emanating from the soil.’
    Just out of curiosity, is there any likelihood that those plexiglas chambers act as genuine greenhouses (not the inaccurately described scientific public relations kind) therefore warming the micro environment inside and contributing to the out gassing of gases emanating from the soil?
    Could that photo also indicate potential testing of those plexiglas chambers as high density human housing? Just kidding. I hope.

    • Your observation about the plastic chambers make the whole experiment a joke , they altered the environment and used the results from that as the “given”, it is great point.

  16. “we can accurately set up climate models…”
    Really?
    This is a new usage of the term “accurate” with which I am unfamiliar.

  17. we need to better understand how soil microbes release carbon on a larger, ecosystem-wide level and what is going to happen with it,” he said.

    A serious statement that translates to more grant money. But for those of us who believe the ECS is below the IPCC lower limit: not worried.

  18. “The models assume……” …..We can argue all day about the validity of GISS, HADCRU, RSS, and UAH measurements and what they mean. I’m still painfully listening…..But for God’s sake, can we drop the model BS and start really measuring stuff. Put down the video games and get back to reality, doing real science. Do any of these guys really understand that a model gives you a representation of what you tell it reality could be…and it truly is not reality itself. Scary stuff…definitely not sciemce…but scary stuff.

  19. Well, at least it is emperical science, even if only in the service of the models. This is a common story: a NEW department gets a NEW gadget and takes it out for a spin. Predictably they discover NEW insights that require NEW funding and NEW adventures in the permafrost.
    There is nothing inherently wrong with this universal process. The problem is, as they are discussing over at Climate Etc., is that new information begets new uncertainty and reveals the shallow understanding that previous scientists had. Knowledge is fractal – erery new answer begets ten new questions. Often inconvenient.
    When I was young and foolish and the big bang theory was new, I believed that astrophysics was about to reveal How The Universe Actually Works. Many years, millions of new discoveries and the largest, most expensive and without doubt, coolest scientific instruments ever built, later it turns out that astrophysics utterly missed – couldn’t see, couldn’t explain, “85% of the matter in the universe.” And so it goes, back to square one.
    The difference is that long term social and economic policy decisions were not being made based on theories about the big bang. It would be very unwise to make such policies based on today’s climate science which is now about where physics was in the 1940s.

  20. Can these microbe get a paper published explaining how they differentiate anthropological warming from natural warming?

  21. Added McCalley: “By taking microbial ecology into account, we can accurately set up climate models to identify how much methane comes from thawing permafrost versus other sources such as fossil-fuel burning.”
    Wot?

  22. Sounds like some college kids and their prof from Arizona needed to come up with a justification for the carbon credits they couldn’t afford to offset their vacation to Sweden, not to mention getting somebody else to pick up the air fare and lodging.

  23. Article: “Soil microbes can make methane… from carbon dioxide and hydrogen… [which produces] ‘energy for the microbe, and the microbe breathes out methane like we breathe out carbon dioxide,’ McCalley said.”
    I first thought that meant this process, which I doubted was really exothermic:
    CO2 + 2·H2 -> CH4 + O2
    But I think it really meant this process, which produces methane and water, and which is, indeed exothermic:
    CO2 + 4·H2 -> CH4 + 2·H2O
    But where does the hydrogen come from?

    • Could be anaerobic degradation of organics in the soil, working symbiotically with the microbes. This is part of the H2 cycle. The H2 and CO2 will form Methane and water…..maybe. The author assumes that someone interested to read this drivel would know that.

    • answer: Acetate (CH3COOH)
      From their Methods section:
      “The degree of C isotopic fractionation between CO2 and CH4 differs between the two main biochemical pathways of methanogenesis, namely acetoclastic (CH3COOH –> CH4 + CO2) and hydrogenotrophic (CO2 + 4H2 –> 2H2O + CH4). Carbon isotope fractionation (αC) is greater for hydrogenotrophic than for acetoclastic methano-genesis, but αH (hydrogen isotope fractionation) follows the opposite pattern: aH (hydrogenotrophic),αH (acetoclastic) (Extended Data Fig. 1; ref.19). Hence, variations in C and H isotopic compositions of CH4 that arise from variations in methanogenic pathway will be anti-correlated: shifts from hydrogenotrophic to acetoclastic production will cause C isotope ratios to increase but H isotope ratios to decline, moving along a negatively sloped ‘production line’ in H–C isotope space (Extended Data Fig. 1). Isotopic variations that arise from variations in the degree of methanotrophy, by contrast, will be positively correlated: shifts towards increasing methanotrophy will cause both C and H isotope ratios to increase along a positively sloped ‘oxidation line’ (Extended Data Fig. 1).”
      http://i59.tinypic.com/nl7doo.jpg

      • ,” McCalley said. “But we find that in thawing permafrost, most methane initially doesn’t come from acetate as previously assumed, but the other pathway.
        I think its “the other” pathway that Dave was asking about.

      • So Acetate is still the source of H2? I assumed that H2 in the second mechanism would be provided by an independent source

  24. So the microbes know the difference between natural and human caused warming and choose only to amplify the human caused warming? Are they trying to make us look bad? LOL. I better get on the yogaecology and love that CO2 out of the atmosphere.

  25. ” the models overestimate carbon released by biological processes and underestimate carbon released by human activities such as fossil-fuel burning.”
    Really? We KNOW how much we are producing. Pretty much. Models don’t estimate that. They may project it.
    Many microbes have multiple metabolic means. Selection has been harsh. They have been around for thousands of millions of years and we have been around for two. We might take a lesson.
    If we ever make it out of the ice age we live in we may well be in for a lot of surprises about what microbes can do when they get out of the freezer. Not looking good for any time soon.

  26. A few thoughts. Permafrost is very marginal and affects quite small areas here in Sweden. It is thus pretty bold to extrapolate results on a global scale. It is rather like studying the Florida Keys to learn about forests in the United States. Permafrost really only occurs in a special type of mires palsmyrar. Most of these are quite difficult of access but Stordalenmyren is unusual in that it is right next to a railway and a main highway and there is good accomodation and food within walking distance. Very lucky coincidence.
    The mire is a Nature Reserve. Description and map here (unfortunately in Swedish):
    http://www.lansstyrelsen.se/norrbotten/SiteCollectionDocuments/Sv/djur-och-natur/skyddad-natur/Naturreservat/Kiruna/Beslut%20och%20BP/Stordalen_BP_2007.pdf
    Secondly (and this applies to all polar methane scare scenarios). Why didn’t it happen during previous, much warmer interglacials?
    By the way I’m rather familiar with both the Climate and Quaternary Geology fields in Sweden, and I’ve never heard of this Crill fellow.

  27. Unsubstantiated first line, “As permafrost soils thaw under the influence of global warming…”
    No need to read any further.

  28. The idea that permafrost only thaws under globally rising temperatures is a ridiculous bit of distraction.
    The idea that a major factor in global warming is only now being described tells us the descriptions in use are not useful.
    Climate obsession destroys the intellects of those seeking to profit from it. As these authors demonstrate.

  29. I have a theory that Irish Leprechauns have caused all the warming since 1870. This theory is every bit as “scientific” was the current madness from the IPCC or the “amplification” theory of this post.
    Anyone care to try to scientifically disprove my theory? (hard to do since it is no more “science” than the currently fashionable theory on how our atmosphere distribute heat around our earth)

  30. It’s back to the ghost-cult days: things you can’t see are gonna git ya! Better be scared! These monsters are going to kill Mother Gaia along with us! And only the High Priests can detect these boogies and save us from them, but it ain’t gonna be cheap!!!
    What a crock.

  31. Why is the role of black carbon in the melting of the ice and the permafrost , and the subsequent feedbacks caused—-always completely ignored?
    It’s feedback cycle increases any GW, yet BC is not even considered in speculation and consternation about the cause of the pause.
    The beginnings of mitigation of the practices in China, India and Indonesia etc that produce the soot from the incomplete combustion in the burning of forests and other biomass —- coincide with the duration of the pause—do they not?
    When those practices are as close to being completely eliminated as possible, it may be that there will be no end to the pause—no resumption of significant warming— and any warming will be just that expected in the emergence from the LIA.
    Is that inconvenient prospect the reason BC is hardly ever mentioned?

  32. If the permafrost is melting, causing more of this microbe-released methane to cause warming – yet warming over the past 5 years or so has been effectively nill – does that mean that when we subtract the warming caused by the microbial methane that the average temperature before the microbe-based adjustment has been cooling?

  33. Let me get this right…
    … we’ve got a big ol’ bunch of sequestered C02 that will we are scared of … it will release on its own or via microbial actions and we need to define the process, so we can model it, to determine (what we have defined as) the negative aspects of the methane/C02 release, as well as place the blame so we can create appropriate polices to mitigate the negative aspects.
    My question would be related to how all that big ol’ bunch of scary sequestered C02 ended up in the permanently frozen ground…
    The article references wetland as the outcome of thaw and conveniently ignores the obvious grassland (as a sink … not a sequester).

  34. Why would you have a model of what the isotopes should be when you can just go and collect them and check it out. The computer, magnificent tool that it is, is also responsible for a universe of fanciful notions in science. It reminds me of what it did for and to the film industry. Yeah, Jurassic Park was a masterpiece not possible without computer simulation, but also the technology killed good screen writing for a couple of decades, replacing plot with massive car crashes, explosions, etc., etc.
    On the article content itself, this is just a microbiologist creating her 15minutes of fame on the closing scenes of the global warming extravaganza. They found a new bug and it isn’t very dramatic or fundable unless it is the key to the destruction of the planet. Think, think, think….the failure of the theory has generated a hive of desperation, searching out ways to resuscitate the cooling of the global warming corpse and we are being treated to an ever more diverse menu of mini end-of-the-world snippets.
    None of the researchers asked the questions that would at least bother an engineer: If these little buggers are just thawing out, were they not a flourishing clan in much warmer days – say during the Holocene Optimum? And didn’t the planet seem to have weathered their evil works just fine? Indeed, while they were at their busiest, the climate actually cooled down from the optimum, and in the big picture, continues its downward temperature trend. Negative feed back, anyone.

  35. Now I’m going to make a contribution, not to biology, but to these particular biologists. Did you know that methane is a widely produced by-product of organic breakdown by micro-organisms? Move your new little bug out of the way and you will see a whole bunch of other ones doing roughly the same thing. Shame on you and your professors.

  36. Still searching for that positive feedback loop
    Still not finding it.
    Always reminds me of the line from a fictional Soviet spy on the name of a well-known western intelligence agency:
    “more indicative of what they seek than what they possess”

  37. “Tiny soil microbes are among the world’s biggest potential amplifiers of human-caused climate change…”
    Isn’t it incredible that when all these scientists undertake their studies, they always somehow relate it all back to a human-caused link. And it’s always negative. When one sees this sort of nonsense, it tells me such studies are crap not worth reading.

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