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Scientists probe Alaska’s very gassy mini-marvels

Jill Burke

It’s a movie script we’ve seen over and over: A frozen beast from the past is thawed and once awakened, wreaks havoc among modern society. Interestingly, that same storyline is unfolding in real life – somewhat -- inside scientific labs, and it has an Alaskan twist.
Researchers have carted chunks of Alaska permafrost off to California, where have learned that allowing the once frozen soil to thaw wakes up hungry microbes, according to newscientist.com, which also offered a cautionary tale. Here’s an excerpt:

 As the Arctic permafrost melts over the coming decades, long-frozen microorganisms will thaw out and start feasting on the soil. The first have already begun to wake up – and early signs are that they will have a major impact on how Earth's climate changes.

As the Arctic permafrost thaws, runaway global warming may ensue, because the huge amounts of organic carbon the permafrost contains will escape into the atmosphere.

The article goes on to talk about how little is known about the “permafrost ecosystem,” including what the micro-mini organisms are that live there or how they interact with each other.

At a lab in Berkeley, California, researchers found that the thawed organisms at first produced a lot of methane, but then the methane levels dropped because other thawed out microbes begin feeding on the gas and converting it to carbon dioxide.

Laughing gas – nitrous oxide -- could also become a factor, according to the article in newscientist.com. Read more here and here.