Melting Permafrost Has Revealed Thousands Of Hidden Microbial Populations

Sweden's Arctic Circle. Gabi Mas/Shutterstock

Predicting climate change can be tricky, in part because there is so much that we just don't know. But new research on microbes and viruses in Sweden's thawing permafrost – aka a thick subterranean layer of soil that has remained completely frozen for two years or more – may hold some answers. The results have been published in NatureNature Microbiology, and the ISME Journal.

"Because of global climate change, huge amounts of permafrost are rapidly warming. To microbes, they’re like freezers full of juicy chicken dinners that are thawing out," Virginia Rich, an assistant professor of microbiology at The Ohio State University and study author, said in a statement.

But these microbes aren't just benefiting from climate change – they are actively shaping it, and they are doing this through their consumption and production of the gas methane.

"In many cases, microbes take advantage of this situation to chew up what’s in the permafrost and breathe out methane. That methane really packs an environmental wallop, with 33 times the climate warming power of carbon dioxide," Rich added. 

All this means that if we want a climate change model that is as accurate as it can possibly be, it is crucial to work out how much methane could be released into the atmosphere. And that means figuring out which microbes are involved and how they will respond to a warmer, wetter climate. 

Or, as Rich puts it, "To do a better job at predicting what will happen in the coming decades we need more information about the key players."

To work out who these keys players are, researchers from Ohio State and nine other organizations with interests ranging from microbiology to climate modeling, are collaborating on a project called the IsoGenie Project. They hope to improve scientific understanding of how microbes and geochemistry connect. 

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