Stordalen Mire in Abisko National Park in Sweden is not known for backyard barbecues or pool parties. The subarctic region on the shores of Lake Tornetrask — often cold enough to skate on — has an annual mean temperature of 31.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
But what this peatland lacks in sunbathing opportunities, it makes up for in microbes. Stordalen Mire is a domain of a recently discovered organism — Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis. And, in a paper published in Nature, scientists say Methanoflorens plays a little-studied and likely underestimated role in warming our planet.
“You could say that both lions and elephants produce carbon dioxide, but they eat different things,” senior author Scott Saleska, an associate professor in the University of Arizona’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, said in a press release. “In Methanoflorens, we discovered the microbial equivalent of an elephant, an organism that plays an enormously important role in what happens to the whole ecosystem.”
As the planet warms, permafrost in Arctic regions retreats, freeing up carbon trapped for millennia. First reported on in January, Methanoflorens flocks to this stuff like Bill Cosby flocks to Pudding Pops.
“All of this ice cream is in the freezer,” researcher Virginia Rich, an assistant professor in Arizona’s soil, water and environmental science department who was involved with the study, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “Now with global climate change, the freezer is failing.”
As Methanoflorens consumes carbon, according to the paper, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas.
“The microbe breathes out methane like we breathe out carbon dioxide,” Carmody McCalley, a scientist at the University of New Hampshire who participated in the study, said in a press release.
But compared with carbon dioxide, methane is really bad.
“Methane is a less abundant greenhouse gas but packs more of a wallop,” Rich said. “It’s 33 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. A little change in methane makes a big difference.”
Researchers thought Methanoflorens, flourishing amid disappearing permafrost, might merely be benefiting from global warming. But after measuring how Methanoflorens creates methane, they believe the microbe may be helping cause climate change.
As the paper put it: “Our findings indicate that microbial ecology may be important in ecosystem-scale responses to global change.”
In other words: “Holy cow,” Rich said. “Microbes actually matter.”
Fifty percent of the Earth’s soil carbon is stored in permafrost, according to the paper. As Rich said, scientists are “marginally freaked out” what will happen to the planet as this carbon is released. Studying Methanoflorens — how it emits methane and how much — will help researchers figure out where greenhouse gases are coming from as they advise policymakers how to curb climate change.
“As the ‘global freezer’ of permafrost is failing under the influence of warming, we need to better understand how soil microbes release carbon on a larger, ecosystem-wide level and what is going to happen with it,” Saleska said.