Small Microbes Play Big in Climate Arena

March 20, 2012 · 0 comments

Microbes may be small, but they shouldn’t be ignored when considering global climate.  According to a new colloquium report from The American Academy of Microbiology, microbes such as bacteria, algae, and fungi play a powerful role in the Earth’s climate.  “Incorporating Microbial Processes into Climate Models” notes how the impact of microbes on the atmosphere goes way back in time. The critical mix of carbon dioxide and oxygen we take for granted as sustaining life on the planet is due to the rise of these tiny creatures eons ago.

So what specifically do these minute forms of life have to do with climate today? According to the report, the answer is plenty.  “The sum total of their activity is enormous. But of course not all microbes are the same—some of them are producing oxygen, others are consuming it. Some are taking carbon dioxide out of the air, others are adding it.”

The big questions that the report asks and plans to address by incorporating microbial processes into climate change models: what’s the overall effect of microbial activities on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Is it possible this activity will absorb the carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere? Or will the rising global temperature might spur microbes to produce even more carbon dioxide?

The authors recognize that the gap between the climatology and microbiology is large, but they say it is not insurmountable. Some of the same technologies used to collect data for climate models—satellite imaging of cloud cover and precipitation, submarine cables that monitor changes in temperature and salinity, sensors to retrieve real-time data from remote locations—can also be applied to measuring biological phenomena. Collaboration between the sciences, they believe, will benefit both fields.

A more detailed look at the report is available here.