No laughing matter: Nitrous oxide rose at end of last ice age

Researchers measured increases in atmospheric nitrous oxide concentrations about 16,000 to 10,000 years ago using ice from Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. -  Adrian Schilt
Researchers measured increases in atmospheric nitrous oxide concentrations about 16,000 to 10,000 years ago using ice from Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. – Adrian Schilt

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is an important greenhouse gas that doesn’t receive as much notoriety as carbon dioxide or methane, but a new study confirms that atmospheric levels of N2O rose significantly as the Earth came out of the last ice age and addresses the cause.

An international team of scientists analyzed air extracted from bubbles enclosed in ancient polar ice from Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, allowing for the reconstruction of the past atmospheric composition. The analysis documented a 30 percent increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide concentrations from 16,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago. This rise in N2O was caused by changes in environmental conditions in the ocean and on land, scientists say, and contributed to the warming at the end of the ice age and the melting of large ice sheets that then existed.

The findings add an important new element to studies of how Earth may respond to a warming climate in the future. Results of the study, which was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation, are being published this week in the journal Nature.

“We found that marine and terrestrial sources contributed about equally to the overall increase of nitrous oxide concentrations and generally evolved in parallel at the end of the last ice age,” said lead author Adrian Schilt, who did much of the work as a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University. Schilt then continued to work on the study at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

“The end of the last ice age represents a partial analog to modern warming and allows us to study the response of natural nitrous oxide emissions to changing environmental conditions,” Schilt added. “This will allow us to better understand what might happen in the future.”

Nitrous oxide is perhaps best known as laughing gas, but it is also produced by microbes on land and in the ocean in processes that occur naturally, but can be enhanced by human activity. Marine nitrous oxide production is linked closely to low oxygen conditions in the upper ocean and global warming is predicted to intensify the low-oxygen zones in many of the world’s ocean basins. N2O also destroys ozone in the stratosphere.

“Warming makes terrestrial microbes produce more nitrous oxide,” noted co-author Edward Brook, an Oregon State paleoclimatologist whose research team included Schilt. “Greenhouse gases go up and down over time, and we’d like to know more about why that happens and how it affects climate.”

Nitrous oxide is among the most difficult greenhouse gases to study in attempting to reconstruct the Earth’s climate history through ice core analysis. The specific technique that the Oregon State research team used requires large samples of pristine ice that date back to the desired time of study – in this case, between about 16,000 and 10,000 years ago.

The unusual way in which Taylor Glacier is configured allowed the scientists to extract ice samples from the surface of the glacier instead of drilling deep in the polar ice cap because older ice is transported upward near the glacier margins, said Brook, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The scientists were able to discern the contributions of marine and terrestrial nitrous oxide through analysis of isotopic ratios, which fingerprint the different sources of N2O in the atmosphere.

“The scientific community knew roughly what the N2O concentration trends were prior to this study,” Brook said, “but these findings confirm that and provide more exact details about changes in sources. As nitrous oxide in the atmosphere continues to increase – along with carbon dioxide and methane – we now will be able to more accurately assess where those contributions are coming from and the rate of the increase.”

Atmospheric N2O was roughly 200 parts per billion at the peak of the ice age about 20,000 years ago then rose to 260 ppb by 10,000 years ago. As of 2014, atmospheric N2Owas measured at about 327 ppb, an increase attributed primarily to agricultural influences.

Although the N2O increase at the end of the last ice age was almost equally attributable to marine and terrestrial sources, the scientists say, there were some differences.

“Our data showed that terrestrial emissions changed faster than marine emissions, which was highlighted by a fast increase of emissions on land that preceded the increase in marine emissions,” Schilt pointed out. “It appears to be a direct response to a rapid temperature change between 15,000 and 14,000 years ago.”

That finding underscores the complexity of analyzing how Earth responds to changing conditions that have to account for marine and terrestrial influences; natural variability; the influence of different greenhouse gases; and a host of other factors, Brook said.

“Natural sources of N2O are predicted to increase in the future and this study will help up test predictions on how the Earth will respond,” Brook said.

Abandoned wells can be ‘super-emitters’ of greenhouse gas

One of the wells the researchers tested; this one in the Allegheny National Forest. -  Princeton University
One of the wells the researchers tested; this one in the Allegheny National Forest. – Princeton University

Princeton University researchers have uncovered a previously unknown, and possibly substantial, source of the greenhouse gas methane to the Earth’s atmosphere.

After testing a sample of abandoned oil and natural gas wells in northwestern Pennsylvania, the researchers found that many of the old wells leaked substantial quantities of methane. Because there are so many abandoned wells nationwide (a recent study from Stanford University concluded there were roughly 3 million abandoned wells in the United States) the researchers believe the overall contribution of leaking wells could be significant.

The researchers said their findings identify a need to make measurements across a wide variety of regions in Pennsylvania but also in other states with a long history of oil and gas development such as California and Texas.

“The research indicates that this is a source of methane that should not be ignored,” said Michael Celia, the Theodore Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton. “We need to determine how significant it is on a wider basis.”

Methane is the unprocessed form of natural gas. Scientists say that after carbon dioxide, methane is the most important contributor to the greenhouse effect, in which gases in the atmosphere trap heat that would otherwise radiate from the Earth. Pound for pound, methane has about 20 times the heat-trapping effect as carbon dioxide. Methane is produced naturally, by processes including decomposition, and by human activity such as landfills and oil and gas production.

While oil and gas companies work to minimize the amount of methane emitted by their operations, almost no attention has been paid to wells that were drilled decades ago. These wells, some of which date back to the 19th century, are typically abandoned and not recorded on official records.

Mary Kang, then a doctoral candidate at Princeton, originally began looking into methane emissions from old wells after researching techniques to store carbon dioxide by injecting it deep underground. While examining ways that carbon dioxide could escape underground storage, Kang wondered about the effect of old wells on methane emissions.

“I was looking for data, but it didn’t exist,” said Kang, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford.

In a paper published Dec. 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe how they chose 19 wells in the adjacent McKean and Potter counties in northwestern Pennsylvania. The wells chosen were all abandoned, and records about the origin of the wells and their conditions did not exist. Only one of the wells was on the state’s list of abandoned wells. Some of the wells, which can look like a pipe emerging from the ground, are located in forests and others in people’s yards. Kang said the lack of documentation made it hard to tell when the wells were originally drilled or whether any attempt had been made to plug them.

“What surprised me was that every well we measured had some methane coming out,” said Celia.

To conduct the research, the team placed enclosures called flux chambers over the tops of the wells. They also placed flux chambers nearby to measure the background emissions from the terrain and make sure the methane was emitted from the wells and not the surrounding area.

Although all the wells registered some level of methane, about 15 percent emitted the gas at a markedly higher level — thousands of times greater than the lower-level wells. Denise Mauzerall, a Princeton professor and a member of the research team, said a critical task is to discover the characteristics of these super-emitting wells.

Mauzerall said the relatively low number of high-emitting wells could offer a workable solution: while trying to plug every abandoned well in the country might be too costly to be realistic, dealing with the smaller number of high emitters could be possible.

“The fact that most of the methane is coming out of a small number of wells should make it easier to address if we can identify the high-emitting wells,” said Mauzerall, who has a joint appointment as a professor of civil and environmental engineering and as a professor of public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School.

The researchers have used their results to extrapolate total methane emissions from abandoned wells in Pennsylvania, although they stress that the results are preliminary because of the relatively small sample. But based on that data, they estimate that emissions from abandoned wells represents as much as 10 percent of methane from human activities in Pennsylvania — about the same amount as caused by current oil and gas production. Also, unlike working wells, which have productive lifetimes of 10 to 15 years, abandoned wells can continue to leak methane for decades.

“This may be a significant source,” Mauzerall said. “There is no single silver bullet but if it turns out that we can cap or capture the methane coming off these really big emitters, that would make a substantial difference.”


Besides Kang, who is the paper’s lead author, Celia and Mauzerall, the paper’s co-authors include: Tullis Onstott, a professor of geosciences at Princeton; Cynthia Kanno, who was a Princeton undergraduate and who is a graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines; Matthew Reid, who was a graduate student at Princeton and is a postdoctoral researcher at EPFL in Luzerne, Switzerland; Xin Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton; and Yuheng Chen, an associate research scholar in geosciences at Princeton.

New research highlights the key role of ozone in climate change

Many of the complex computer models which are used to predict climate change could be missing an important ozone ‘feedback’ factor in their calculations of future global warming, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge and published today (1 December) in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Computer models play a crucial role in informing climate policy. They are used to assess the effect that carbon emissions have had on the Earth’s climate to date, and to predict possible pathways for the future of our climate.

Increasing computing power combined with increasing scientific knowledge has led to major advances in our understanding of the climate system during the past decades. However, the Earth’s inherent complexity, and the still limited computational power available, means that not every variable can be included in current models. Consequently, scientists have to make informed choices in order to build models which are fit for purpose.

“These models are the only tools we have in terms of predicting the future impacts of climate change, so it’s crucial that they are as accurate and as thorough as we can make them,” said the paper’s lead author Peer Nowack, a PhD student in the Centre for Atmospheric Science, part of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

The new research has highlighted a key role that ozone, a major component of the stratosphere, plays in how climate change occurs, and the possible implications for predictions of global warming. Changes in ozone are often either not included, or are included a very simplified manner, in current climate models. This is due to the complexity and the sheer computational power it takes to calculate these changes, an important deficiency in some studies.

In addition to its role in protecting the Earth from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, ozone is also a greenhouse gas. The ozone layer is part of a vast chemical network, and changes in environmental conditions, such as changes in temperature or the atmospheric circulation, result in changes in ozone abundance. This process is known as an atmospheric chemical feedback.

Using a comprehensive atmosphere-ocean chemistry-climate model, the Cambridge team, working with researchers from the University of East Anglia, the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, the Met Office and the University of Reading, compared ozone at pre-industrial levels with how it evolves in response to a quadrupling of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is a standard climate change experiment.

What they discovered is a reduction in global surface warming of approximately 20% – equating to 1° Celsius – when compared with most models after 75 years. This difference is due to ozone changes in the lower stratosphere in the tropics, which are mainly caused by changes in the atmospheric circulation under climate change.

“This research has shown that ozone feedback can play a major role in global warming and that it should be included consistently in climate models,” said Nowack. “These models are incredibly complex, just as the Earth is, and there are an almost infinite number of different processes which we could include. Many different processes have to be simplified in order to make them run effectively within the model, but what this research shows is that ozone feedback plays a major role in climate change, and therefore should be included in models in order to make them as accurate as we can make them. However, this particular feedback is especially complex since it depends on many other climate processes that models still simulate differently. Therefore, the best option to represent this feedback consistently might be to calculate ozone changes in every model, in spite of the high computational costs of such a procedure.

“Climate change research is all about having the best data possible. Every climate model currently in use shows that warming is occurring and will continue to occur, but the difference is in how and when they predict warming will happen. Having the best models possible will help make the best climate policy.”

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For more information, or to speak with the researchers, contact:

Sarah Collins, Office of Communications University of Cambridge Tel: +44 (0)1223 765542, Mob: +44 (0)7525 337458 Email: sarah.collins@admin.cam.ac.uk

Notes for editors:

1.The paper, “A large ozone-circulation feedback and its implications for global warming assessments” is published in the journal Nature Climate Change. DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2451

2.The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. To date, 90 affiliates of the University have won the Nobel Prize. http://www.cam.ac.uk

3.UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences is one of the longest established, largest and most fully developed of its kind in Europe. It was ranked 5th in the Guardian League Table 2015.In the last Research Assessment Exercise, 95 per cent of the school’s activity was classified as internationally excellent or world leading. http://www.uea.ac.uk/env

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Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”

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This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1256211

James Farquhar home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=13

Alan J. Kaufman home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=15

Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=66

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, abbyr@umd.edu

Writer: Heather Dewar

New study shows 3 abrupt pulse of CO2 during last deglaciation

A new study shows that the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide that contributed to the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago did not occur gradually, but was characterized by three “pulses” in which C02 rose abruptly.

Scientists are not sure what caused these abrupt increases, during which C02 levels rose about 10-15 parts per million – or about 5 percent per episode – over a period of 1-2 centuries. It likely was a combination of factors, they say, including ocean circulation, changing wind patterns, and terrestrial processes.

The finding is important, however, because it casts new light on the mechanisms that take the Earth in and out of ice age regimes. Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, appear this week in the journal Nature.

“We used to think that naturally occurring changes in carbon dioxide took place relatively slowly over the 10,000 years it took to move out of the last ice age,” said Shaun Marcott, lead author on the article who conducted his study as a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University. “This abrupt, centennial-scale variability of CO2 appears to be a fundamental part of the global carbon cycle.”

Some previous research has hinted at the possibility that spikes in atmospheric carbon dioxide may have accelerated the last deglaciation, but that hypothesis had not been resolved, the researchers say. The key to the new finding is the analysis of an ice core from the West Antarctic that provided the scientists with an unprecedented glimpse into the past.

Scientists studying past climate have been hampered by the limitations of previous ice cores. Cores from Greenland, for example, provide unique records of rapid climate events going back 120,000 years – but high concentrations of impurities don’t allow researchers to accurately determine atmospheric carbon dioxide records. Antarctic ice cores have fewer impurities, but generally have had lower “temporal resolution,” providing less detailed information about atmospheric CO2.

However, a new core from West Antarctica, drilled to a depth of 3,405 meters in 2011 and spanning the last 68,000 years, has “extraordinary detail,” said Oregon State paleoclimatologist Edward Brook, a co-author on the Nature study and an internationally recognized ice core expert. Because the area where the core was taken gets high annual snowfall, he said, the new ice core provides one of the most detailed records of atmospheric CO2.

“It is a remarkable ice core and it clearly shows distinct pulses of carbon dioxide increase that can be very reliably dated,” Brook said. “These are some of the fastest natural changes in CO2 we have observed, and were probably big enough on their own to impact the Earth’s climate.

“The abrupt events did not end the ice age by themselves,” Brook added. “That might be jumping the gun a bit. But it is fair to say that the natural carbon cycle can change a lot faster than was previously thought – and we don’t know all of the mechanisms that caused that rapid change.”

The researchers say that the increase in atmospheric CO2 from the peak of the last ice age to complete deglaciation was about 80 parts per million, taking place over 10,000 years. Thus, the finding that 30-45 ppm of the increase happened in just a few centuries was significant.

The overall rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the last deglaciation was thought to have been triggered by the release of CO2 from the deep ocean – especially the Southern Ocean. However, the researchers say that no obvious ocean mechanism is known that would trigger rises of 10-15 ppm over a time span as short as one to two centuries.

“The oceans are simply not thought to respond that fast,” Brook said. “Either the cause of these pulses is at least part terrestrial, or there is some mechanism in the ocean system we don’t yet know about.”

One reason the researchers are reluctant to pin the end of the last ice age solely on CO2 increases is that other processes were taking place, according to Marcott, who recently joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“At the same time CO2 was increasing, the rate of methane in the atmosphere was also increasing at the same or a slightly higher rate,” Marcott said. “We also know that during at least two of these pulses, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation changed as well. Changes in the ocean circulation would have affected CO2 – and indirectly methane, by impacting global rainfall patterns.”

“The Earth is a big coupled system,” he added, “and there are many pieces to the puzzle. The discovery of these strong, rapid pulses of CO2 is an important piece.”

Synthetic biology for space exploration

Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. -  Photo courtesy of NASA
Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. – Photo courtesy of NASA

Does synthetic biology hold the key to manned space exploration of Mars and the Moon? Berkeley Lab researchers have used synthetic biology to produce an inexpensive and reliable microbial-based alternative to the world’s most effective anti-malaria drug, and to develop clean, green and sustainable alternatives to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In the future, synthetic biology could also be used to make manned space missions more practical.

“Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and a leading authority on synthetic and systems biology.

“During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare,” Arkin says. “At an extraterrestrial base, synthetic biology could even make more effective use of the catalytic activities of diverse organisms.”

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reports on a techno-economic analysis demonstrating “the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned long-duration space missions.” The paper is titled “Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions.” The lead and corresponding author is Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral scholar in Arkin’s research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Other co-authors are John Cumbers and John Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center.

One of the biggest challenges to manned space missions is the expense. The NASA rule-of-thumb is that every unit mass of payload launched requires the support of an additional 99 units of mass, with “support” encompassing everything from fuel to oxygen to food and medicine for the astronauts, etc. Most of the current technologies now deployed or under development for providing this support are abiotic, meaning non-biological. Arkin, Menezes and their collaborators have shown that providing this support with technologies based on existing biological processes is a more than viable alternative.

“Because synthetic biology allows us to engineer biological processes to our advantage, we found in our analysis that technologies, when using common space metrics such as mass, power and volume, have the potential to provide substantial cost savings, especially in mass,” Menezes says.

In their study, the authors looked at four target areas: fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. They showed that for a 916 day manned mission to Mars, the use of microbial biomanufacturing capabilities could reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by 56-percent, the mass of food-shipments by 38-percent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85-percent. In addition, microbes could also completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, which would provide independence from unmanned re-supply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive.

“Space has always provided a wonderful test of whether technology can meet strict engineering standards for both effect and safety,” Arkin says. “NASA has worked decades to ensure that the specifications that new technologies must meet are rigorous and realistic, which allowed us to perform up-front techno-economic analysis.”

The big advantage biological manufacturing holds over abiotic manufacturing is the remarkable ability of natural and engineered microbes to transform very simple starting substrates, such as carbon dioxide, water biomass or minerals, into materials that astronauts on long-term missions will need. This capability should prove especially useful for future extraterrestrial settlements.

“The mineral and carbon composition of other celestial bodies is different from the bulk of Earth, but the earth is diverse with many extreme environments that have some relationship to those that might be found at possible bases on the Moon or Mars,” Arkin says. “Microbes could be used to greatly augment the materials available at a landing site, enable the biomanufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals, and possibly even modify and enrich local soils for agriculture in controlled environments.”

The authors acknowledge that much of their analysis is speculative and that their calculations show a number of significant challenges to making biomanufacturing a feasible augmentation and replacement for abiotic technologies. However, they argue that the investment to overcome these barriers offers dramatic potential payoff for future space programs.

“We’ve got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off,” says Menezes. “Abiotic technologies were developed for many, many decades before they were successfully utilized in space, so of course biological technologies have some catching-up to do. However, this catching-up may not be that much, and in some cases, the biological technologies may already be superior to their abiotic counterparts.”

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This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit http://www.lbl.gov.

The breathing sand

An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. -  Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR
An Eddy Correlation Lander analyzes the strength of the oxygen fluxes at the bottom of the North Sea. – Photo: ROV-Team, GEOMAR

A desert at the bottom of the sea? Although the waters of the North Sea exchange about every two to three years, there is evidence of decreasing oxygen content. If lower amounts of this gas are dissolved in seawater, organisms on and in the seabed produce less energy – with implications for larger creatures and the biogeochemical cycling in the marine ecosystem. Since nutrients, carbon and oxygen circulate very well and are processed quickly in the permeable, sandy sediments that make up two-thirds of the North Sea, measurements of metabolic rates are especially difficult here. Using the new Aquatic Eddy Correlation technique, scientists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Koblenz-Landau, the Scottish Marine Institute and Aarhus University were able to demonstrate how oxygen flows at the ground of the North Sea. Their methods and results are presented in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

“The so-called ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique detects the flow of oxygen through these small turbulences over an area of several square meters. It considers both the mixing of sediments by organisms living in it and the hydrodynamics of the water above the rough sea floor”, Dr. Peter Linke, a marine biologist at GEOMAR, explains. “Previous methods overlooked only short periods or disregarded important parameters. Now we can create a more realistic picture.” The new method also takes into account the fact that even small objects such as shells or ripples shaped by wave action or currents are able to impact the oxygen exchange in permeable sediments.

On the expedition CE0913 with the Irish research vessel CELTIC EXPLORER, scientists used the underwater robot ROV KIEL 6000 to place three different instruments within the “Tommeliten” area belonging to Norway: Two “Eddy Correlation Landers” recorded the strength of oxygen fluxes over three tidal cycles. Information about the distribution of oxygen in the sediment was collected with a “Profiler Lander”, a seafloor observatory with oxygen sensors and flow meters. A “Benthic chamber” isolated 314 square centimetres of sediment and took samples from the overlying water over a period of 24 hours to determine the oxygen consumption of the sediment.

“The combination of traditional tools with the ‘Eddy Correlation’ technique has given us new insights into the dynamics of the exchange of substances between the sea water and the underlying sediment. A variety of factors determine the timing and amount of oxygen available. Currents that provide the sandy sediment with oxygen, but also the small-scale morphology of the seafloor, ensure that small benthic organisms are able to process carbon or other nutrients. The dependencies are so complex that they can be decrypted only by using special methods”, Dr. Linke summarizes. Therefore, detailed measurements in the water column and at the boundary to the seafloor as well as model calculations are absolutely necessary to understand basic functions and better estimate future changes in the cycle of materials. “With conventional methods, for example, we would never have been able to find that the loose sandy sediment stores oxygen brought in by the currents for periods of less water movement and less oxygen introduction.”

Original publication:
McGinnis, D. F., S. Sommer, A. Lorke, R. N. Glud, P. Linke (2014): Quantifying tidally driven benthic oxygen exchange across permeable sediments: An aquatic eddy correlation study. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, doi:10.1002/2014JC010303.

Links:

GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel

Eddy correlation information page

Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, IGB

University of Southern Denmark

University of Koblenz-Landau

Scottish Marine Institute

Aarhus University

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Microfossils reveal warm oceans had less oxygen, geologists say

Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. -  Syracuse University
Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. – Syracuse University

Researchers in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences are pairing chemical analyses with micropaleontology—the study of tiny fossilized organisms—to better understand how global marine life was affected by a rapid warming event more than 55 million years ago.

Their findings are the subject of an article in the journal Paleoceanography (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

“Global warming impacts marine life in complex ways, of which the loss of dissolved oxygen [a condition known as hypoxia] is a growing concern” says Zunli Lu, assistant professor of Earth sciences and a member of Syracuse’s Water Science and Engineering Initiative. “Moreover, it’s difficult to predict future deoxygenation that is induced by carbon emissions, without a good understanding of our geologic past.”

Lu says this type of deoxygenation leads to larger and thicker oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) in the world’s oceans. An OMZ is the layer of water in an ocean where oxygen saturation is at its lowest.

Much of Lu’s work revolves around the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a well-studied analogue for modern climate warming. Documenting the expansion of OMZs during the PETM is difficult because of the lack of a sensitive, widely applicable indicator of dissolved oxygen.

To address the problem, Lu and his colleagues have begun working with iodate, a type of iodine that exists only in oxygenated waters. By analyzing the iodine-to-calcium ratios in microfossils, they are able to estimate the oxygen levels of ambient seawater, where microorganisms once lived.

Fossil skeletons of a group of protists known as foraminiferas have long been used for paleo-environmental reconstructions. Developing an oxygenation proxy for foraminifera is important to Lu because it could enable him study the extent of OMZs “in 3-D,” since these popcorn-like organisms have been abundant in ancient and modern oceans.

“By comparing our fossil data with oxygen levels simulated in climate models, we think OMZs were much more prevalent 55 million years ago than they are today,” he says, adding that OMZs likely expanded during the PETM. “Deoxygenation, along with warming and acidification, had a dramatic effect on marine life during the PETM, prompting mass extinction on the seafloor.”

Lu thinks analytical facilities that combine climate modeling with micropaleontology will help scientists anticipate trends in ocean deoxygenation. Already, it’s been reported that modern-day OMZs, such as ones in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, are beginning to expand. “They’re natural laboratories for research,” he says, regarding the interactions between oceanic oxygen levels and climate changes.”

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The article’s lead author is Xiaoli Zhou, a Ph.D. student of Lu’s in Syracuse’s Earth sciences department. Other coauthors are Ellen Thomas, a senior research scientist in geology and geophysics at Yale University; Ros Rickaby, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oxford (U.K.); and Arne Winguth, assistant professor of oceanography at The University of Texas at Arlington.

Housed in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Earth Sciences offers graduate and undergraduate degree opportunities in environmental geology, wetland hydrogeology, crustal evolution, sedimentology, isotope geochemistry, paleobiology, paleolimnology, and global environmental change.

Scientists discover carbonate rocks are unrecognized methane sink

Since the first undersea methane seep was discovered 30 years ago, scientists have meticulously analyzed and measured how microbes in the seafloor sediments consume the greenhouse gas methane as part of understanding how the Earth works.

The sediment-based microbes form an important methane “sink,” preventing much of the chemical from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation. As a byproduct of this process, the microbes create a type of rock known as authigenic carbonate, which while interesting to scientists was not thought to be involved in the processing of methane.

That is no longer the case. A team of scientists has discovered that these authigenic carbonate rocks also contain vast amounts of active microbes that take up methane. The results of their study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, were reported today in the journal Nature Communications.

“No one had really examined these rocks as living habitats before,” noted Andrew Thurber, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-author on the paper. “It was just assumed that they were inactive. In previous studies, we had seen remnants of microbes in the rocks – DNA and lipids – but we thought they were relics of past activity. We didn’t know they were active.

“This goes to show how the global methane process is still rather poorly understood,” Thurber added.

Lead author Jeffrey Marlow of the California Institute of Technology and his colleagues studied samples from authigenic compounds off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest (Hydrate Ridge), northern California (Eel River Basin) and central America (the Costa Rica margin). The rocks range in size and distribution from small pebbles to carbonate “pavement” stretching dozens of square miles.

“Methane-derived carbonates represent a large volume within many seep systems and finding active methane-consuming archaea and bacteria in the interior of these carbonate rocks extends the known habitat for methane-consuming microorganisms beyond the relatively thin layer of sediment that may overlay a carbonate mound,” said Marlow, a geobiology graduate student in the lab of Victoria Orphan of Caltech.

These assemblages are also found in the Gulf of Mexico as well as off Chile, New Zealand, Africa, Europe – “and pretty much every ocean basin in the world,” noted Thurber, an assistant professor (senior research) in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The study is important, scientists say, because the rock-based microbes potentially may consume a huge amount of methane. The microbes were less active than those found in the sediment, but were more abundant – and the areas they inhabit are extensive, making their importance potential enormous. Studies have found that approximately 3-6 percent of the methane in the atmosphere is from marine sources – and this number is so low due to microbes in the ocean sediments consuming some 60-90 percent of the methane that would otherwise escape.

Now those ratios will have to be re-examined to determine how much of the methane sink can be attributed to microbes in rocks versus those in sediments. The distinction is important, the researchers say, because it is an unrecognized sink for a potentially very important greenhouse gas.

“We found that these carbonate rocks located in areas of active methane seeps are themselves more active,” Thurber said. “Rocks located in comparatively inactive regions had little microbial activity. However, they can quickly activate when methane becomes available.

“In some ways, these rocks are like armies waiting in the wings to be called upon when needed to absorb methane.”

The ocean contains vast amounts of methane, which has long been a concern to scientists. Marine reservoirs of methane are estimated to total more than 455 gigatons and may be as much as 10,000 gigatons carbon in methane. A gigaton is approximate 1.1 billion tons.

By contrast, all of the planet’s gas and oil deposits are thought to total about 200-300 gigatons of carbon.

Past climate change and continental ice melt linked to varying CO2 levels

Scientists at the Universities of Southampton and Cardiff have discovered that a globally warm period in Earth’s geological past featured highly variable levels of CO2.

Previous studies have found that the Miocene climatic optimum, a period that extends from about 15 to 17 million years ago, was associated with big changes in both temperature and the amount of continental ice on the planet.

Now a new study, published in Paleoceanography, has found that these changes in temperature and ice volume were matched by equally dramatic shifts in atmospheric CO2.

Using more detailed records than has previously been available, scientists have shown that CO2 levels in this period reached around 500 ppm (parts per million), the same level that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) projects for the end of the century.

Lead author Rosanna Greenop, from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, says: “The drivers of short term, orbital-scale temperature and ice volume change during warm periods of the Earth’s history have never been analysed before. Here we are able to show that in the same way as the more recent ice ages are linked with cycles of CO2, it also plays an important role in cyclical climate changes during warm periods.

Researchers also showed that at low levels of CO2, ice volume varied strongly, but at higher levels, there was little or no additional change in volume. The authors of the study hypothesis that there must be a portion of the East Antarctic ice sheet that varies in volume at the lower end of the CO2 range. However, the absence of additional ice melt at higher CO2 levels suggests that there is also a portion of the ice sheet that remains stable at the maximum CO2 levels.

Evidence suggests that the northern Hemisphere and West Antarctic ice sheets did not exist during the warm Miocene climatic optimum.

“While we recognise that the Miocene climatic optimum is not a perfect analogue for our own warm future, the geological past does represent an actual reality that the Earth system experienced,” says the University of Southampton’s Dr Gavin Foster, co-author of the study. “As such the findings of this study have large implications for the stability of the continental ice sheets in the future. They indicate that portions of the East Antarctic ice sheet can act in a dynamic fashion, growing and shrinking in response to climate forcing.”

Co-author Caroline Lear, of Cardiff University, adds: “We tend to think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a sluggish ice sheet, but these records show that in past warm climates it has been surprisingly sensitive to natural variations in carbon dioxide levels.