With brutal blizzards, dry air, and some of the coldest temperatures on earth, the Antarctic is inhospitable to the best of us. But not, apparently, to the 21,000 billion metric tons of organic carbon that could be producing up to four billion metric tons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – beneath the continent.
In a new study, scientists have discovered that sedimentary basins beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet contain huge quantities of organic carbon that work in concert with microbes to produce methane. The microbes metabolize the organic carbon to carbon dioxide and methane gas. Coupled with the lack of oxygen under ice sheets, these conditions are “the perfect ingredients for methanogenesis,” University of Bristol professor of glaciology Jemma Wadham said. Their findings were published in the August 30 issue of Nature.
“It is easy to forget that before 35 million years ago, when the current period of Antarctic glaciations started, this continent was teeming with life,” University of California-Santa Cruz earth and planetary sciences professor Slawek Tulaczyk said in a statement. Sedimentary basins in the Antarctic may have contained over ten times more organic carbon than parts of the Arctic, according to the study. “Our modeling shows that over millions of years, microbes may have turned this old organic carbon into methane.”