Polar Ice Melt Thaws Out Ancient Microbes

One byproduct of polar ice melt is the release of ancient microbes that have been frozen for more than 750,000 years—microbes that are still alive and capable of being reanimated once thawed.

Arctic Pole

“You kind of think of ice as a museum back in time, this window back into your past,” says Christine Forman, an associate research professor of microbial ecology at Montana State University.

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Considering the fact that climate change brings with it a whole host of unforeseen problems, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one byproduct of polar ice melt is the release of microbes that have been frozen for more than 750,000 years.  The surprise is that the microbes are still alive and capable of being reanimated once thawed.

As reported by Daily Climate (April 17, 2012), scientists aren’t too worried about a sudden spread of ancient disease, but rather the hard-to-predict impact of an enormous amount organic matter that will begin decomposing once thawed. Scientists estimate that the entire biomass held within the ice sheet could amount to more than 1,000 times that of the humans on earth. The amount of carbon dioxide and methane emitted by the decomposing microbes would constitute a major source of greenhouse gases that climate researchers haven’t considered. The concerns compound when scientists start thinking about how these ancient microbes might impact the delicate chemistry of the ocean, and what will happen when they interact with existing microbial populations.

Scientists are trying to make the most of the polar ice melt, though, and have been able to glean some valuable information by studying these ancient bugs in the ice, which have survived the deep freeze by becoming minimally active. “You kind of think of ice as a museum back in time, this window back into your past,” says Christine Forman, an associate research professor of microbial ecology at Montana State University. Scientists like Foreman are hopeful that the ancient microbes will shed some light on Earth’s previous rounds of climate change, and they’re also interested in seeing how the microbes changed between times of warming and cooling. There are even efforts underway to bore deeper into the ice and bring up even older microbes to reanimate and analyze.