Methane Myopia: 5 – Ice Core Science

Methane Myopia - Ice Core Science

Glaciology is a slippery science.

Glaciology is the study of glaciers, or more generally ice and natural phenomena that involve ice.

Glaciology is an interdisciplinary earth science that integrates geophysics, geology, physical geography, geomorphology, climatology, meteorology, hydrology, biology, and ecology.

Critics claim the science of Glaciology stinks.

However, critics may be surprised to learn the stink is not just a metaphorical allusion.

The stink originates from the “reliable data” that has been “extracted” from ice cores.

According to work published in 2007, the concentrations of CO2 and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since 1750.

These levels are much higher than at any time during the last 800,000 years, the period for which reliable data has been extracted from ice cores.

Atmospheric CO2 concentration from 650,000 years ago to near present

Atmospheric CO2 concentration from 650,000 years ago to near present, using ice core proxy data and direct measurements.

A more technical explanation is that the glaciologists have collectively [and conveniently] excluded cryophilic microbes from their rigorously frigid settled science.

The exclusion of cryophilic microbes became necessary when the glaciologists discovered [the hard way] that cryophilic microbes have a nasty habit of growing and reproducing at temperatures between -15°C and +10°C in “polar ice, glaciers and snowfields”.

Psychrophiles or cryophiles (adj. cryophilic) are extremophilic organisms that are capable of growth and reproduction in cold temperatures, ranging from −15°C to +10°C.

Temperatures as low as −15°C are found in pockets of very salty water (brine) surrounded by sea ice.

They can be contrasted with thermophiles, which thrive at unusually hot temperatures.

The environments they inhabit are ubiquitous on Earth, as a large fraction of our planetary surface experiences temperatures lower than 15°C.

They are present in alpine and arctic soils, high-latitude and deep ocean waters, polar ice, glaciers, and snowfields.

Cryophilic microbes are very cheeky in the cold.

Give them half a chance and they will even grow and reproduce in your freezer cabinet.

Thankfully, my freezer cabinet was designed by scientists who decided to strictly limit the thermostat range to between -24°C and -16°C.

Unfortunately, the glaciologists haven’t yet managed to add a thermostat to the ice sheets.

Regrettably, the glaciologists [also] haven’t publicly confessed to having a freezer cabinet full of rotten, stinking ice core data that has been “extra matured” by nature at temperatures above -16°C.

Unfortunately, the glaciologists expect the public to consume this extra matured glacial gorgonzola.

Anyone who has returned home to encounter tripped fuses and a defrosting freezer will know that they are in real trouble if they can smell the freezer.

That is, anyone except a glaciologist.

They have evolved a natural instinct whereby they just close their eyes [think of England] and put a clothes peg on their nose.

In experimental work at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a 1000 litre biogas digester using psychrophiles harvested from “mud from a frozen lake in Alaska” has produced 200–300 litres of methane per day, about 20–30% of the output from digesters in warmer climates.

Methane producing microbes are collectively called methanogens which are globally acclaimed for their ability to transform carbon dioxide into methane.

Methanogens are usually coccoid (spherical) or bacilli (rod shaped).

There are over 50 described species of methanogens, which do not form a monophyletic group, although all methanogens belong to Archaea.

They are anaerobic organisms and cannot function under aerobic conditions.

They are very sensitive to the presence of oxygen even at trace level.

Usually, they cannot sustain oxygen stress for a prolonged time.

However, Methanosarcina barkeri is exceptional in possessing a superoxide dismutase (SOD) enzyme, and may survive longer than the others in the presence of O2.

Some methanogens, called hydrogenotrophic, use carbon dioxide (CO2) as a source of carbon, and hydrogen as a reducing agent.

The reduction of carbon dioxide into methane in the presence of hydrogen can be expressed as follows: CO2 + 4 H2 → CH4 + 2 H2O

Methanogens have been found in several extreme environments on Earth – buried under kilometres of ice in Greenland and living in hot, dry desert soil.

They can reproduce at temperatures of 15 to 100 degrees Celsius.

They are known to be the most common archaebacteria in deep subterranean habitats.

Live microbes making methane were found in a glacial ice core sample retrieved from three kilometres under Greenland by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.

Unfortunately, the glacial Wikipedia seems to have [accidentally] overlooked a couple of things in their entry for methanogens.

Firstly, Wikipedia forgot to mention that some methanogen are well adapted cryophilic microbes [aka psychrophiles, aka cryophiles].

In the last decade, experiments have shown that microbes, including methanogens, can extract energy and essential elements while living in liquid veins at triple junctions of ice crystals, on clay grains in ice, or even within an ice crystal lattice.

Microbial Life in Ice: Habitats, Metabolism, and Survival in Mars.
P. B. Price, R. A. Rohde, and R. C. Bay and N. E. Bramall
Astrobiology Science Conference 2010

The habitats for life at subfreezing temperatures benefit from two unusual properties of ice.

First, almost all ionic impurities are insoluble in the crystal structure of ice, which leads to a network of micron-diameter veins in which microorganisms may utilize ions for metabolism.

Second, ice in contact with mineral surfaces develops a nanometrethick film of unfrozen water that provides a second habitat that may allow microorganisms to extract energy from redox reactions with ions in the water film or ions in the mineral structure.

Microbial life in glacial ice and implications for a cold origin of life – P. Buford Price
Physics Department, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Secondly, Wikipedia forgot that cryophilic methanogens can grow and reproduce in cold temperatures ranging from −15°C to +10°C.

Wikipedia - Methanogens temperature range error-3

Thirdly, Wikipedia forgot that some methanogens convert carbon monoxide into methane.

In 2006, James Ferry and Christopher House discovered that M. acetivorans uses a previously unknown metabolic pathway to metabolize carbon monoxide into methane and acetate using the well known enzymes phosphotransacetylase (PTS) and acetate kinase (ACK).

However, with this carefully garnered knowledge [that cryophilic microbes grow and reproduce down to -15°C] it is now possible to predict where cryophilic microbes should thrive in an ice core based upon the temperature profile of the ice sheet.

The Greenland GRIP ice core has the following temperature profile [left hand blue trace below].

Greenland - GRIP and Dye 3 temperature profiles
Past Temperatures Directly from the Greenland Ice Sheet
Dahl-Jensen, Mosegaard, Gundestrup, Clow, Johnsen, Hansen and Balling
9 October 1998 Vol 282 Science

Close inspection of the temperature profile indicates the ice core temperature hits -15°C very slightly before a depth on 2,800 metres in the GRIP ice core.

Therefore, thriving colonies of cryophilic microbes might [in theory] be found in the GRIP ice core below 2,800 metres.

This prediction should be equally valid for the companion GISP2 ice core because “the GISP2 and GRIP records are nearly identical in shape and in many of the details.”

Unfortunately, the GRIP and GISP2 are only “nearly identical” down to a depth of 2,790 metres!

Down to a depth of 2790 m in GISP2 (corresponding to an age of about 110 kyr B.P.), the GISP2 and GRIP records are nearly identical in shape and in many of the details.

Unfortunately, below 2,790 metres the “ice age changes discontinuously” in the GISP2 core.

The climatic significance of the deeper part of the GISP2 ice core, below 2790 m depth and 110 kyr age, is a matter of considerable investigation and controversy.

The isotopic temperature records and electrical conductivity records of GISP2 and GRIP, so similar for younger ice, are very different in the lower part (Grootes et al., 1993; Taylor et al., 1993a).

Ice in both cores below 2790 m depth shows evidence of folding or tilting in structures too large to be fully observed in a single core (Gow et al., 1993; Alley et al., 1995).

The d18O of O2 in GISP2 above 2790 m matches almost perfectly with the Vostok record (Sowers et al., 1993); below it is far noisier and the smoothed Vostok signal cannot be aligned unambiguously with GISP2 (Bender et al., 1994).

These features all suggest that ice age changes discontinuously in the deepest part of GISP2 as a result of folding, extensive boudinage (squeezing out of layers of ice), and/or intrusion.

The GISP2 glacial gorgonzola below 2,790 metres was, therefore, gleefully grated and the GRIP glacial gorgonzola was glorified as the only genuine glacial gorgonzola grown in Greenland.

GRIP (1993) interpreted the climate proxy records from the deepest part of their core as being properly ordered and continuous.

So how bad was the GISP2 glacial gorgonzola?

Microbes, gases, ions and mineral grains in silty and glacial ice at GISP2 and GRIP

Microbial life in glacial ice and implications for a cold origin of life – P. Buford Price
Physics Department, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Variations in methane concentration in ice cores, such as the 3,053-meter-long (10,016-foot-long) core obtained by the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2, have been used to gauge past climate.

In that core, however, some segments within about 100 meters, or 300 feet, of the bottom registered levels of methane as much as 10 times higher than would be expected from trends over the past 110,000 years.

Price and his colleagues showed in their paper that these anomalous peaks can be explained by the presence in the ice of methanogens. Methanogens are common on Earth in places devoid of oxygen, such as in the rumens of cows, and could easily have been scraped up by ice flowing over the swampy subglacial soil and incorporated into some of the bottom layers of ice.

Price and his colleagues found these methanogens in the same foot-thick segments of the core where the excess methane was measured in otherwise clear ice at depths 17, 35 and 100 meters (56, 115 and 328 feet) above bedrock.

They calculated that the measured amount of Archaea, frozen and barely active, could have produced the observed amount of excess methane in the ice.

“We found methanogens at precisely those depths where excess methane had been found, and nowhere else,” Price said. “I think everyone would agree that this is a smoking gun.”

Biologists at Pennsylvania State University had earlier analyzed ice several meters above bedrock that was dark gray in appearance because of its high silt content, and identified dozens of types of both aerobic (oxygen-loving) and anaerobic (oxygen-phobic) microbes.

They estimated that 80 percent of the microbes were still alive.

Microbes under Greenland Ice may be preview of what scientists find under Mars’ surface
Dec 14, 2005

Methanogens [presumably in association with many other Cryophilics] made a number of short appearances in the GISP2 glacial gorgonzola and finished with a series of grand finales in the last 100 metres.

Methanogens in the Greenland GISP2 ice core

Upper two panels:
Methane concentration vs. depth in GISP2 ice core (E. Brook, unpublished results);

Middle two panels:
Concentration of cells stained with Syto-23 vs. depth;

Lower two panels:
Concentration of methanogens determined by counting F420 autofluorescence (adapted from Tung et al., 2005).

Figure 5 shows the surprising results of the study by Tung et al. (2005) of microorganisms in the 3040m of GISP2 glacial ice, which led them to propose a scenario in which the microorganisms were exhumed from the 14-m thickness of silty ice underneath.

The top two panels, from measurements of trapped methane sampled every few meters of depth (Brook, unpublished results), shows concentrations that range from ~350 to ~750 ppbv, in strong correlation with climate, with the exception of anomalously high values at three depths: 2954, 3018 and 3036 m.

To see whether the large excesses might be due to microbial metabolism, Tung et al. (2005) enumerated cells stained with Syto-23, observed with epifluorescence microscopy and shown in the middle panels, and methanogens, detected via the blue-green autofluorescence of their F420 coenzyme.

They found excesses of both methanogens and Syto-23-stained cells at those three depths.

At 3000m there were also high concentrations of stained cells and of methanogens, but Brook did not measure methane at that depth.

At 2238m they saw an excess of stained cells; again, at that depth Brook did not measure methane.

A visual inspection of the section of core from 2953 to 2954.1m showed a dramatic change in appearance in a narrow region at ~2953.7m corresponding to the region with high cell concentrations: inclined, wavy, distorted layering contrasted sharply with the appearance of normal polycrystalline ice at 2953–2953.5 m.

In Fig. 5, at all three depths, the regions with excess cells and methane were confined to narrow depth intervals of only ~0.3 m.

The interpretation of those regions by Tung et al. (2005) was that jerky ‘stick-slip’ glacial flow of ice across a frozen wetland repeatedly scraped thin layers of microbe-rich ice off of the silty region, intermixing it with glacial ice at distances up to nearly 100m above the interface between silt and ice.

Since Brook measured methane only at intervals of several meters, additional layers in the lower 100m or so of glacial ice may also exist but not yet have been detected.

It should be emphasized that the excesses at those three depths came from a microbial community that had been living in an anaerobic wetland before being frozen and incorporated into the 14-m thick silty ice at the bottom and into several layers of ice above the silty region.

Microbial life in glacial ice and implications for a cold origin of life – P. Buford Price
Physics Department, University of California, Berkeley, USA

At this stage we can only speculate about the spikes in the methanogen population.

The spike may represent discontinuities in the chronology or even natural disasters.

The intriguingly observation that the spikes at 2954, 3018 and 3036 metres “came from a microbial community that had been living in an anaerobic wetland before being frozen and incorporated” suggests the “ice sheet” was [at that time] located in a boggy marsh.

Unfortunately, only very limited sampling of cell concentrations have been performed in the ice cores and much more effort is required before a meaningful impact assessment can be developed.

GISP2 cell concentrations measured by direct counts

Microbial Life in Ice: Habitats, Metabolism, and Survival in Mars.
P. B. Price, R. A. Rohde, and R. C. Bay and N. E. Bramall
Astrobiology Science Conference 2010

Finally, there is the intriguing observation that the first 100 metres of the ice cores “at every site” shows a rapid decline in the intensity of microbial cells.

The most striking feature of the data is that at every site the intensity falls off rapidly with depth in the upper ~100 m and then levels off to an intensity that shows no systematic depth-dependence.

Our tentative interpretation of the steep decrease is that most microbes transported onto a growing ice cap die and decompose with loss of much of their fluorescence as a consequence of failing to adapt to the hostile conditions inside the ice.

Those that do adapt will metabolize at a rate sufficient to repair spontaneous molecular damage.

Microbial Life in Ice: Habitats, Metabolism, and Survival in Mars.
P. B. Price, R. A. Rohde, and R. C. Bay and N. E. Bramall
Astrobiology Science Conference 2010

The striking suggestion that many microbes die and decompose in the first 100 metres of an ice core might just explain why it was difficult to splice CO2 ice core data onto the Mauna Loa dataset.

Siple – Antarctica – CO2 Ice Core Data

Another Global Warming Fraud Exposed
Ice Core Data Show No Carbon Dioxide Increase
Zbigniew Jaworowski

Click to access IceCoreSprg97.pdf

However, we will probably never learn much more these microbes unless the glaciologists [collectively] decide to stop distributing their odious brand of glacial gorgonzola.

To be continued…

Related Posts.

Chronology: 1 – Ice Cores

Chronology: 2 – Greenland and Oxygen Isotopes

This entry was posted in Astrophysics, Earth, Geology, Glaciology, Methane Myopia, Science, Solar System. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Methane Myopia: 5 – Ice Core Science

  1. Pingback: Methane Myopia: 4 – Pobiti Kamani | MalagaBay

  2. Brian H says:

    The CO2 in ice bubbles used to “sample the atmosphere” over the lifespans of the ice sheets would be fair game for the methanophores, one would think. More data corruption?

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