Methane-absorbing bacteria can reduce the release of gases due to the melting of Antarctic ice

A new study published in Nature Geoscience shows a previously unknown way of converting methane under ice in a place that was previously considered unsuitable for life. The researchers studied a sample of water and sediment from the depth of 800 meters in the subglacial Lake Uillians in Antarctica meters for the first time. Then they measured the amount of methane and conducted genomic analyzes, which made it possible to find that 99 percent of the methane released into the lake is absorbed by the microorganisms.

These tiny microorganisms can have a major impact on global warming, preventing methane from escaping into the atmosphere when glacial slabs melt, said Brent Christner, a microbiologist at the University of Florida and co-author of the study.

Since sunlight does not reach the subglacial lakes of Antarctica, which is necessary to ensure the life of some microbes, some of them have “learned” to convert methane to carbon dioxide to provide themselves with nutrients. As you know, methane makes a greater contribution to the process of the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. Thus, these microorganisms can play a critical role during the melting of glaciers.

The study showed that in Lake Williams contains a large amount of methane. Krisner states that the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets can cause emissions of a large number of gases stored in these underground reservoirs. The researchers calculated that more than 100 trillion cubic meters of methane, sufficient to fill more than a billion balloons, is stored under Antarctic ice, which can be released under certain conditions.

Given that methane has a greenhouse effect that is 30 times greater than that of carbon dioxide, researchers are motivated to assess its quantity, source and its ultimate “fate” under the ice. However, Kristner noted that although carbon dioxide does not increase warming as rapidly as methane, it is still the driving force behind global warming.

Future studies will assess whether this process is ubiquitous in the subglacial lakes of Antarctica. Kristner and his colleagues plan to conduct research in another subglacial lake in 2018-2019.


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