On warmer Earth, most of Arctic may remove, not add, methane

August 17, 2015
Mosaic of images of the Arctic by MODIS. Credit: NASA

In addition to melting icecaps and imperiled wildlife, a significant concern among scientists is that higher Arctic temperatures brought about by climate change could result in the release of massive amounts of carbon locked in the region's frozen soil in the form of carbon dioxide and methane. Arctic permafrost is estimated to contain about a trillion tons of carbon, which would potentially accelerate global warming. Carbon emissions in the form of methane have been of particular concern because on a 100-year scale methane is about 25-times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

However, new research led by Princeton University researchers and published in The ISME Journal in August suggests that, thanks to -hungry bacteria, the majority of Arctic soil might actually be able to absorb methane from the atmosphere rather than release it. Furthermore, that ability seems to become greater as temperatures rise.

The researchers found that Arctic soils containing low carbon content—which make up 87 percent of the soil in permafrost regions globally—not only remove methane from the atmosphere, but also become more efficient as temperatures increase. During a three-year period, a carbon-poor site on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's Arctic region consistently took up more methane as the ground temperature rose from 0 to 18 degrees Celsius (32 to 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The researchers project that should Arctic temperatures rise by 5 to 15 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years, the methane-absorbing capacity of "carbon-poor" soil could increase by five to 30 times.

The researchers found that this ability stems from an as-yet unknown species of bacteria in carbon-poor Arctic soil that consume methane in the atmosphere. The bacteria are related to a bacterial group known as Upland Soil Cluster Alpha, the dominant methane-consuming bacteria in carbon-poor Arctic soil. The bacteria the researchers studied remove the carbon from methane to produce methanol, a simple alcohol the bacteria process immediately. The is used for growth or respiration, meaning that it either remains in bacterial cells or is released as .

First author Chui Yim "Maggie" Lau, an associate research scholar in Princeton's Department of Geosciences, said that although it's too early to claim that the entire Arctic will be a massive methane "sink" in a warmer world, the study's results do suggest that the Arctic could help mitigate the warming effect that would be caused by a rising amount of methane in the atmosphere. In immediate terms, climate models that project conditions on a warmer Earth could use this study to more accurately calculate the future methane content of the atmosphere, Lau said.

"At our study sites, we are more confident that these soils will continue to be a sink under future warming. In the future, the Arctic may not have atmospheric methane increase as much as the rest of the world," Lau said. "We don't have a direct answer as to whether these Arctic soils will offset global or not, but they will certainly help the situation."

The researchers want to study the bacteria's physiology as well as test the upper temperature threshold and methane concentrations at which they can still efficiently process methane, Lau said. Field observations showed that the bacteria are still effective up to 18 degrees Celsius (64.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and can remove methane down to one-quarter of the methane level in the atmosphere, which is around 0.5 parts-per-million.

"If these can still work in a future warmer climate and are widespread in other Arctic permafrost areas, maybe they could regulate methane for the whole globe," Lau said. "These regions may seem isolated from the world, but they may have been doing things to help the world."

Explore further: Methane in Arctic lake traced to groundwater from seasonal thawing

More information: M.C.Y. Lau, B.T. Stackhouse, A.C. Layton, A. Chauhan, T. A. Vishnivetskaya, K. Chourey, J. Ronholm, N.C.S. Mykytczuk, P.C. Bennett, G. Lamarche-Gagnon, N. Burton, W.H. Pollard, C.R. Omelon, D.M. Medvigy, R.L. Hettich, S.M. Pfiffner, L.G. Whyte, and T.C. Onstott. 2015. An active atmospheric methane sink in high Arctic mineral cryosols. The ISME Journal. Article published in print August 2015. DOI: 10.1038/ismej.2015.13

Related Stories

Researchers clarify impact of permafrost thaw

May 12, 2015

As the Earth's climate continues to warm, researchers are working to understand how human-driven emissions of carbon dioxide will affect the release of naturally occurring greenhouse gases from arctic permafrost. As the perennially ...

Ocean currents disturb methane-eating bacteria

May 4, 2015

Offshore the Svalbard archipelago, methane gas is seeping out of the seabed at the depths of several hundred meters. These cold seeps are a home to communities of microorganisms that survive in a chemosynthetic environment ...

Alaska shows no signs of rising Arctic methane

November 17, 2014

Despite large temperature increases in Alaska in recent decades, a new analysis of NASA airborne data finds that methane is not being released from Alaskan soils into the atmosphere at unusually high rates, as recent modeling ...

Recommended for you

Increasing tornado outbreaks—is climate change responsible?

December 1, 2016

Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms kill people and damage property every year. Estimated U.S. insured losses due to severe thunderstorms in the first half of 2016 were $8.5 billion. The largest U.S. impacts of tornadoes result ...

15 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

leetennant
3.7 / 5 (12) Aug 17, 2015
While this would be great if it were true, the large positive feedback in the system from increasing GHG levels is supported by the geological record.

It may not come from the Arctic, if they're right, but I think that record contradicts the theory that the Arctic will compensate for other methane sources in a warming world
Eddy Courant
2.3 / 5 (12) Aug 17, 2015
Not welcome news. If you're a sabre rattler. A hand wringer. Or an apocalyptic alarmist. The rest of us are fine with it.
Steve 200mph Cruiz
4.2 / 5 (11) Aug 17, 2015
It's just a factoid guys, it is only a little piece in a larger picture.
There's nuance in the world, nature doesn't care about politics
jeffensley
2.3 / 5 (12) Aug 18, 2015
It's almost as if the Earth's been warmer before... weird.
AGreatWhopper
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 18, 2015
Conservatives are doing this as well. It's time to stop feeding the trolls or admit you really don't give a damn about what you're preaching. http://www.thegua...-savchuk

Boycott all comments until trolls posting cut and paste spam are deleted. I don't have a lot of hope, though, given the level of hypocrisy the liberals show here.
Eddy Courant
2 / 5 (4) Aug 19, 2015
There's a dearth of comments from the gloom and doomers. They must be partying. That's it. They have finally come to their senses. Phew! The polar bears will be fine after all. Giddyup!
antigoracle
2 / 5 (4) Aug 19, 2015
There's a dearth of comments from the gloom and doomers. They must be partying. That's it. They have finally come to their senses. Phew! The polar bears will be fine after all. Giddyup!

The grey linings just got lighter, on the clouds of their delusional world, revealing some reality. So, they are most likely recovering from that.
denglish
2 / 5 (4) Aug 19, 2015
More evidence that the science of climatology is not well enough known to use it to cripple economies and justify moral corruption.

Also, this is more reason why the climate models have failed.

I'm surprised the Artic Methane Emergency Group website is still up:
http://ameg.me/

Check out some of the roach predictions on that (dead) site!

Isn't the Earth wonderful? It has its own stop gaps, and climate skills...its as if the earth's climate has been changing for billions of years!
denglish
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 19, 2015
This is pretty cool. Here's an animation showing artic ice wax and wane over one year. Notice how in the winter the ice grows, and in the summer the ice retreats? Who knew!?!?!

http://www7320.nr...365d.gif
denglish
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 19, 2015
I had to share this; from another site:

People who crave the disaster-porn of "scientists" can never be bothered to recognize the unending failure of their predictions. The whole point of end-of-the-world predictions is that the reader experiences a quick rush of excitement and holier-than-thou self reflection. The truth or falsity of the prediction does not even enter into the experience.
Eddy Courant
2 / 5 (4) Aug 20, 2015
Good one, denglish!
machapungo
not rated yet Aug 22, 2015
These bacteria sound like a good path to convert methane gas to methanol to put in our gas tanks.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (5) Aug 22, 2015
I had to share this; from another site:

People who crave the disaster-porn of "scientists" can never be bothered to recognize the unending failure of their predictions. The whole point of end-of-the-world predictions is that the reader experiences a quick rush of excitement and holier-than-thou self reflection. The truth or falsity of the prediction does not even enter into the experience.
You are the only one who comes here day after day to talk about climate change and nothing else. Frankly, I think this is an obsession and it is destroying your life. You must be somewhere between stage 1 and 3 on the Kübler-Ross model. We are just helping you to get to stage 4 so we can have a break.
denglish
1 / 5 (2) Aug 22, 2015
You must be somewhere between stage 1 and 3 on the Kübler-Ross model.

You take pleasure in the misfortune of others.

That's the only thing your post illustrated. Congratulations? I guess so...if that's all you're capable of.

On another subject, you reminded me I still have this thread on email alert; no more. So, you did do some good with your post. Thank you.
Mike_Massen
2 / 5 (4) Aug 23, 2015
Re: denglish, cherry picks with nil idea of Robust Statistics
https://en.wikipe...atistics

Acts like ubavontuba, similarities abound. Key issue they both fail, other than statistics/means/medians etc are failures to understand key settled physics
https://en.wikipe...transfer

further detailed re greenhouse gases here
https://en.wikipe..._forcing

Is well proven, never refuted. So question arises Where is the heat going, answer is obvious to anyone who has done high-school physics - the material with the higher specific heat/mass. That is, Oceans !

denglish's reporting is an outright lie, his naive attempt to pursue propaganda here, Eg my last post
http://phys.org/n...ght.html

denglish FAILs to address the warning by RSS
http://www.remss....eratures

ie Last sentence of 1st para

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.