Greenhouse gasses, ice cover, and the deep ocean shape Earth’s paleoclimate in unexpected ways

Featured Image: Line-scan image of sediment core from the Bay of Bengal. Image from the International Ocean Discovery Program. A. Volcanic ash associated with the Toba eruption. B. Pyrite-, foraminifer-, and shell fragment–rich sandy patch in foraminifer-rich clay with biosilica. C. Scaphopod in nannofossil-rich clay with foraminifers. D. Wood fragments in clay. E. Large dark gray burrow filled with the overlying sediment. F. Core disturbance (cracks) due to gas release when core liner was drilled on the catwalk. G. Minor core disturbance due to mud and water flow-in along the edges of the liner (~1 cm thickness).

Paper: Increased interglacial atmospheric CO2 levels followed the mid-Pleistocene Transition

Authors: Masanobu Yamamoto, Steven C. Clemens, Osamu Seki, Yuko Tsuchiya, Yongsong Huang, Ryouta O’ishi, Ayako Abe-Ouchi

Mention of the ice age may conjure up images of giant mastodons, ferocious saber-tooth tigers, or of a prehistoric squirrel trying so desperately to secure his acorn—all taking place on the vast amount of ice that covered portions of the globe. We know that periods of ice cover followed by stretches of warm weather was a standard pattern in our Earth’s history*, but there was something special about the last ice age (during the Pleistocene) and how long it hung around. 

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Methanotrophs: Nature’s catalytic converters

Featured image: A car exhaust pipe, by Matt Boitor on Unsplash.

Paper: Microbial methane oxidation efficiency and robustness during lake overturn

Authors: M. Zimmerman, M. Mayr, H. Bürgmann, W. Eugster, T. Steinsberger, B. Wehrli, A. Brand, D. Bouffard

If you own a car, you’re likely aware that your engine emits greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Although we usually think of cars and other human activities as the primary source of such greenhouse gases, living ecosystems can also produce these gases through natural processes. For example, lakes are an important global source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas produced in lake sediments as organic matter decomposes. In their recent paper, Zimmerman and colleagues focus on a small but mighty team of microbes that work hard to limit the amount of methane emitted from lakes.

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Breaking: all living things may produce methane, including you

Featured Image: Collage of Life.  Image courtesy Bryan K. Lynn.

Paper: Methane formation driven by reactive oxygen species across all living organisms

Authors: Leonard Ernst, Benedikt Steinfeld, Uladzimir Barayeu, Thomas Klintzsch, Markus Kurth, Dirk Grimm, Tobias P. Dick, Johannes G. Rebelein, Ilka B. Bischofs, Frank Keppler

You may have heard how methane is a “potent greenhouse gas.”  But what does that mean?  Even though there are fewer molecules released in our atmosphere when compared to carbon dioxide, methane holds onto heat 25 times more effectively than carbon dioxide.  In other words, if carbon dioxide acts as a linen sheet around Earth, then methane is akin to a downy comforter. 

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The surprising effects rivers have on our atmosphere

Featured Image: Rio Bermejo meeting up with the Paraguay River, on the boarder of Formosa and Chaco Provinces.  Image by Mapio. Used with permision.

Paper: Fluvial organic carbon cycling regulated by sediment transit time and mineral protection

Authors: Marisa Repasch, Joel S. Scheingross, Niels Hovius, Maarten Lupker, Hella Wittmann, Negar Haghipour, Darren R. Gröcke, Oscar Orfeo, Timothy I. Eglinton, and Dirk Sachse

In our current era of rapid climate change, it is critical we understand how every aspect of the Earth system affects carbon cycling.  New work by Marisa Repasch and colleagues shows that rivers, under the right conditions, might be able to sequester more carbon in the sediments than released into the atmosphere. However, these findings may reveal how human impacts to rivers will likely increase the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere.

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Metal-Eating Microbes Who Breathe Methane

Featured Image: Murky pond in Alaska with “rusty” iron-filled sediments. Image courtesy Jessica Buser. Used with permission.

Paper:  Sulfate- and iron-dependent anaerobic methane oxidation occurring side-by-side in freshwater lake sediment

Authors: Alina Mostovaya, Michael Wind-Hansen, Paul Rousteau, Laura A. Bristow, Bo Thamdrup

The table has been set and the food is all prepared. But this is no ordinary dinner party, it’s a microbe party! The guests sit down and proceed to dig into the main course; sulfur, rusty iron, and methane. Curiously, the guests are feeding each other, not themselves! This image seems pretty weird to us humans, but it’s a delight to these microbes. This collaborative method of eating occurs in pond and lake mud all around the world. In a new study, Mostovaya and colleagues describe one such feast in Danish Lake Ørn, that is not only collaborative but may mitigate climate change.

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Carbon to carbonates: capturing CO2 with rocks

Featured image: a field of basalt in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (National Park Service, public domain)

Paper: Potential CO2 removal from enhanced weathering by ecosystem respnses to powdered rock
Authors: Daniel S. Goll et al.

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations pledged to work toward a common goal of limiting global warming to less than 2°C compared to pre-industrial times. The Agreement doesn’t specify how the signatories should do this, though: levy a carbon tax? Shut down coal-fired power plants? Use a stainless steel straw? According to the best available climate science, we will need to be doing all of the above and then some. In fact, meeting the target of the Paris Agreement will require negative emissions, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere via some form of Negative Emissions Technology (NET).

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Highway Maintenance “Drives” Carbon Release in Forests

Featured Image: Forest and highway between Trójmiasto and Gdynia, Northern Poland. Image courtesy Robin Hammam.

Paper: The proximity of a highway increases CO2 respiration in forest soil and decreases the stability of soil organic matter

Authors: Dawid Kupka, Mateusz Kania, Piotr Gruba

There has been a lot of talk about transportation as of late with America’s “Build Back Better Act”.  While these political decisions are partially informed by scientific research around climate change, particularly in the United States (where 30% of greenhouse gas emissions result from transportation by road, rail, and air each year), the negative impacts of transportation infrastructure on the climate and local ecosystems are often lost in political discussions.  In a new study in Scientific Reports, Kupka and colleagues discuss the broader impacts of highway maintenance on nearby forest soil ecosystems, finding that roadways themselves can increase carbon dioxide emissions by disrupting local carbon cycles.

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Buried treasure in the oceans: chemistry of small deep-sea crystals hints at past carbon cycling

Featured image: Crystals of the mineral barite from the deep ocean (Adapted from Kastner (1999)). These crystals precipitated in ocean sediments and are about 9 million years old, similar in age to some of the barite samples from the study discussed here.

Paper: A 35-million-year record of seawater stable Sr isotopes reveals a fluctuating global carbon cycle

Authors: Adina Paytan, Elizabeth M. Griffith, Anton Eisenhauer, Mathis P. Hain, Klaus Wallmann, Andrew Ridgwell

What do ancient ocean sediments and the walls around x-ray machines have in common? One possible answer? Sometimes the mineral barite is an important part of both!  Barite (or barium sulfate) is able to block gamma and x-ray emissions, and therefore is sometimes used in high-density concrete in hospitals and laboratories. In the deep ocean, tiny crystals of barite naturally accumulate on the seafloor over time, particularly in regions ideal for this mineral formation where many decaying remains of organisms sink to the seafloor. The chemistry of this barite can give scientists clues into Earth’s past, which is what Adina Paytan and her colleagues did in this study.

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Microbes, tectonics, and the global carbon cycle

Featured image: Steam rising from a pool in the Aguas Termales area near the base of Rincón de la Vieja volcano in Costa Rica. Courtesy of the Global Volcanism Program, Smithsonian Institution; photo by Paul Kimberly.

Paper: Effect of tectonic processes on biosphere-geosphere feedbacks across a convergent margin
Authors: K. M. Fullerton, M. O. Schrenk, M. Yucel, E. Manini, M. Basili, T. J. Rogers, D. Fattorini, M. Di Carlo, G. d’Errico, F. Regoli, M. Nakagawa, C. Vetriani, F. Smedile, C. Ramirez, H. Miller, S. M. Morrison, J. Buongiorno, G. L. Jessen, A. D. Steen, M. Martinez, J. M. de Moor, P. H. Barry, D. Giovannelli, and K. G. Lloyd

Plate tectonics describes the workings of our planet on the gigantic scale of continents and oceans, moving graduallly over hundreds of millions of years. But the tectonic processes that slowly shape and reshape the whole surface of the Earth also directly influence the lives of some of our planet’s tiniest residents: microbes. And those microbes, in turn, may have a larger effect on Earth’s carbon cycle than previously estimated.

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The future cost of mercury exposure

Featured image: Rice paddy fields in Indonesia by Steve Douglas on Unsplash

Paper: Zhang, Y., Song, Z., Huang, S. et al. Global health effects of future atmospheric mercury emissions. Nat Commun 12, 3035 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23391-7

Methylmercury, the organic form of the element mercury, is everywhere. A common global pollutant, this form of mercury is most commonly consumed by humans in food, and subsequent impacts include heart failure and loss of IQ. Environmental mercury is nothing short of a public health crisis, and while global interventions are rolling out to protect humans from this toxic pollutant, new research published in Nature Communications is showing us that the damage isn’t just in human lives, it’s also in dollars and cents. 

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