Methane-loving microbes may help reduce emissions from melting permafrost

As the climate warms up, polar ice and glaciers aren’t the only things at risk melting. Permafrost — the frozen layer of soil that underlies the Arctic tundra — is beginning to thaw as well, with scientists concerned that this will release huge amounts of greenhouse gases stored there.

But according to new research from Purdue University, the amount of methane released in the atmosphere because of melting permafrost might actually be lower than previously estimated. And that’s thanks to an unusual ally — a group of methane-loving bacteria called methanotrophs, which consume the gas as an energy source.

Methanotrophs live in organic-rich wetland soil in the Arctic, although this environment gives off far more methane than the bugs can consume. But the researchers on the new study discovered brand new species of methanotrophs in Arctic mineral uplands. These soils are drier and contain far less methane, so the new species absorbs the gas from the air and munches on it.

Realizing that these microbes hadn’t been included in prior calculations, the researchers then added their methane consumption into a biogeochemical model. And sure enough, the methane emission projections dropped.

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