Confirmed: Microbial life found half mile below Antarctic ice sheet

August 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

In an icy lake half a mile beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, scientists have discovered a diverse ecosystem of single-celled organisms that have managed to survive without ever seeing the light of the sun.

The discovery, reported Wednesday in the journal Nature is not so much a surprise as a triumph of science and engineering. The research team spent 10 years and more than $10 million to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that life did indeed exist in subglacial lakes near the South Pole.

“It’s the real deal,” said Peter Doran, an Earth scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was not involved in the study. “There was news that they found life early this year, but a bunch of us were waiting for the peer reviewed paper to come out before we jumped for joy.”

John Priscu, the lead scientist on the project, has been studying the Antarctic for 30 years. He published his first paper describing how life might exist in the extreme environment beneath the ice sheet in 1999, and has been looking for definitive proof ever since.

In the winter of 2013-2014, he finally got his chance. After spending millions on a drill that could bore a clean hole free of contaminants through the ice sheet, and moving more than 1 million pounds of gear on giant sleds across the Antarctic ice sheet, he and his team had just four frenzied days to collect the water samples that would prove whether his theories were right or wrong.

Before claiming victory, he wanted to see three lines of evidence that life did exist in the underwater lake. He wanted to visually see the cells under a microscope, he wanted to prove they were alive by feeding them organic matter and measuring their respiration rate, and he wanted to see how much ATT was in their cells.

“I wasn’t surprised to find life under there, but I was surprised how much life there was, and how they made a living,” said Priscu, who teaches at Montana State University. “They are essentially eating the Earth.”

Priscu and his team report the discovery of close to 4,000 species of microbes growing in the cold, dark environment of Subglacial Lake Whillans in western Antarctica. Each quarter teaspoon  of the tea-colored lake water that they brought to the surface had about 130,000 cells in it, they write.


The WISSARD camp sitting .5 a mile above the subglacial Lake Whillans in Antarctica. (J. Priscu / MSU)

“I think we were all surprised by that number,” said Brent Christener of Louisiana State University and the lead author of the Nature paper. “We’ve got lakes here on campus that we can take samples of and the numbers are about in that range.”

Life in the lakes of Louisiana has sunlight to provide it with energy, but in the lightless environment of Subglacial Lake Whillans, the microbes rely on minerals from the bedrock and sediments instead. The pressure of the slowly moving ice above the lake grinds the underlying rock into a powder, liberating the minerals in the rock into the water, and making them accessible to the microorganisms living there, explains Christener. The microbes act on those iron, ammonium and sulphide compounds to create energy.

“Ice, water and rock is all that is really needed to fuel the system,” he said.

The findings have major implications for the search for life outside of Earth, especially on the moons of Enceladus and Europa, where scientists believe a thick icy crust covers a vast, internal liquid ocean.

“Europa has an icy shelf and liquid water beneath it, just like we find in the Antarctic system which allows us to draw some conclusions about what we might find there,” said Priscu. “I’d love to be around when we finally penetrate that environment to look for life.”

Lake Whillans, the first lake to be sampled in Antarctica, is a shallow lake, about 6 feet deep, and about 37-square-miles in size. Priscu compares it to the lakes you might see in the Mississippi Basin, with rivers running through it and bringing some of the lake water out into the Indian Ocean.

To sample it, the researchers developed a new type of hot water drill system.

“In principal it is nothing more than a kilometer (about 1/2 a mile) garden hose that you shoot hot water through,” said Christener, “but in reality it is a complex monster.”

The tricky part was using the hot water to drill down into the ice without getting any of that water in the lake. “It’s like taking an 800 page novel and drilling down into 799 pages and then stopping,” he said.

The researchers brought about 13 gallons of the lake water back to the surface to study its chemistry and to see what might be living in it. The water was a brownish color because of the very fine particles that were suspended in it. The particles were so fine, that even after a few days, they did not settle to the bottom of the containers.

Going forward, the researchers want to learn more about how nutrients created by microbial activity in Lake Whillans affects the water in the Indian Ocean. They also think there may be large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane being produced in the lake that could be released into the atmosphere if the Antarctic ice sheet melts.

They would also like to look at other types of subglacial lakes on the continent, some of which are 3,000 feet deep and buried beneath 2 miles of ice.

“Now that we have shown that life can exist in this environment, we’d like to look at other lake types to see the biodiversity and ecosystems that exist under the ice, and get a better idea of their global importance,” said Priscu, who was on his way to plan the next expedition.

The team is going back to Antarctica with their drill in November.

“Hopefully we’ll have more discoveries coming soon,” he said.

For more news on amazing science, follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science Health on Facebook.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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Even in Deepwater Canyons, America’s Corals At Risk

August 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

At the beach this summer, gazing out over the waves from the shoreline, it’s hard to imagine the underwater world that lies just below the blue expanse: Partly because it’s so other-worldy, and partly because we just don’t know very much about it.


A squat lobster makes its home among various deep-sea corals in Norfolk Canyon, offshore Virginia. (Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.)

Scientific exploration into the ocean’s depths reveals new discoveries every day, and researchers at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are at the forefront on this work. Take a look at the incredible images from some of their recent dives off the Atlantic Coast:

These amazing gardens of deep-sea coral communities, in Dr. Seuss-like shapes and colors, are a sanctuary for marine life. They serve as a nursery for young fish and crustaceans, and shelter a range of sea life seeking a safe haven from threats that lie in the open waters of the deep sea.

However, the Atlantic’s deep-sea coral communities are at risk. They are highly vulnerable to harm from fishing gear, such as trawlers that pull their fishing nets along the bottom of the ocean. Most deep-sea corals are very slow-growing, so once they’re cut down, that habitat remains destroyed for a very long time. In fact, one pass of trawl gear can destroy corals that have been growing for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

The public now has an opportunity to help protect these ocean oases. Last Monday, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, made up of federal officials and state representatives from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, took an historic step forward to adopt protections for the region’s unique, ecologically important and highly vulnerable deep-sea coral communities. The Council released a full array of options for deep-sea coral protections and will soon ask the public to weigh in on the best ways to preserve these ecosystems.

This is the moment to act on the issue. Because of their depth and rugged topography, the deep-sea coral communities off the Atlantic coast have been largely sheltered from harmful bottom trawling. But as traditional fish species become overfished or markets change, fishing will continue to move into deeper waters and more difficult terrain.

We have a unique window to protect the deep-sea corals and the ecosystems they help support before irreversible damage is done. The Council should protect against the use of damaging fishing gear in both discrete coral protection zones, which would safeguard particularly high-value coral habitat like submarine canyons, and broad coral protection zones, which would provide a level of protection for deeper areas in the region until it is determined that coral communities are not present in these areas.

NRDC is working to ensure that these incredible resources are protected for the future. Public hearings to discuss the Council’s proposed protections will be held this fall — it is important that every voice is heard.

A version of this article was originally published on Live Science Expert Voices.

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Researcher Compares Garbage Patch In Pacific Ocean To Floating ‘Landfill’

August 15, 2014 by  
Filed under Plastic

LONG BEACH ( — A massive patch of garbage floating in the ocean between California and Hawaii continues to grow and have an adverse impact on the ecosystem, researchers announced Friday.

KNX 1070’s Bob Brill reports Capt. Charles Moore and his research team are returning to their home base in Long Beach after nearly two months at sea studying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.

Researchers Compare Garbage Patch In Pacific Ocean To Floating ‘Landfill’

Moore was part of a crew of scientists assembled by the Algalita Marine Research Institute who lived for 30 days in July amid the debris to evaluate long-term trends and changes in the Gyre by merging data collected over the past 15 years with new 2014 data.

But after spending nearly two months at sea studying to display samples of plastic pollution and to transfer fish samples to area research labs for testing to determine the extent of toxic infiltration into the ecosystem, Moore said the garbage patch appears to be getting worse.

Moore, who has studied the debris patch known as the Pacific Gyre for over 15 years, said the amount of pollution in the North Pacific Ocean has grown exponentially from plastic and trash washed into the sea by tsunamis, storms and other disasters.

“My mind is blown,” said Moore. “It’s like an landfill got inundated with water and all the stuff in the landfill started floating.”

As many as hundreds of miles of concentrated floating plastic in the North Pacific is visible to the naked eye, according to Moore.

The vast majority of the garbage usually hits well north and south of Southern California because of natural barriers such as wind and currents, but plastics could alter endocrine systems that are vital to the health of both fish and humans, said Moore.

“Enlarged and discolored livers in the fish, we’re looking at hormone disruption, the kind of things that we see in fish that are impacted by plastics in rivers,” Moore said. “We already know that many fish that are male have been feminized living downstream from places where there are chemical pollutants.”

Scientists say the primary risk with synthetic plastic debris is it can be easily confused with natural food due to its small sizes and lower-than-seawater density.

Moore and his crew are scheduled to dock at Alamitos Bay Landing in Long Beach around 4 p.m., according to officials.

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Global Warming Responsible for 70 Percent of Recent Glacier Loss, Study Finds

August 15, 2014 by  
Filed under Global Warming

From Alaska to the Andes, glaciers all over the world have been retreating for decades, as average global surface temperatures have increased. This loss of these glaciers is one of the most iconic manifestations of manmade global warming, but until now, no one had studied the obvious question: Just how much global glacier melt (referred to technically as “glacier mass loss”) is global warming responsible for, and how much is from natural climate variability?

A new study, published Thursday in the journal Science Express, tackles that question, and comes to a profound — if not surprising— conclusion. The study found that manmade global warming, which is largely due to the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal for energy, is responsible for nearly 70% of global glacier mass loss between 1991 to 2010.

See also: Sea Level Rise Visualization Shows Your Home — Underwater

Glaciers are melting because of human actions, which implies that also related impacts, such as changed water availability and hazards from glacial lakes can be considered man-made,” lead author Ben Marzeion, with the University of Innsbruck, told Mashable.

The study, by researchers at the University of Innsbruck and Trent University, found that over a longer time period, from 1851-2010, the manmade signal is smaller, accounting for about 25% of glacier melt. Part of the reason for this is that during the early decades within that time, period glaciers were still responding to natural climate variability, including the end of the so-called “Little Ice Age” when temperatures were considerably cooler than they are now.

Meltwater channels from the previous summer and terminus of the Violin Glacier in East Greenland, seen during an Operation IceBridge survey flight on April 5, 2014. Image: NASA IceBridge

The study showed that glaciers are still responding to climate change that occurred years ago because they have a delayed response to warming. This means that the accelerated warming seen since the 1970s is likely to cause even more melting in the coming years, even though temperatures rose much more slowly during the past decade.

Melting glaciers are a hazard because they contribute to rising sea levels, which are already causing coastal storms to be more destructive, and also altering water resources; this leads to flooding hazards in many areas, such as the Himalayas. Without manmade global warming, glaciers would have contributed about 3.9 inches to global sea level rise during the 1851 to 2010 period, the study found; but with it, they contributed 5.2 inches.

This may sound like a small number, but every fraction of an inch can make a huge difference when it comes to storm surge in highly populated coastal cities. For example, the foot of sea level rise during the past century in New York City was enough for Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge to flood thousands of additional homes and businesses than the storm would have without that extra water.


The Anderson Glacier in Olympic National Park in 1936, and again in 2004. Credit: National Park Service. Image: National Park Service

The study said that in some areas, it is quite clear that manmade global warming is driving glaciers to shrink, including Alaska, western Canada, Arctic Canada, Greenland and north Asia, among others. But in some spots, such as the southern Andes and Caucasus region, the study’s methods did not detect a manmade warming signal with high confidence.

To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers used a model of global glacier evolution based in part on the Randolph Glacier Inventory, which contains information for individual glaciers, as well as the latest global climate models to simulate the contribution of natural and manmade climate change. They found that the computer model simulations could not match the observed record without including manmade global warming. The study includes all of the world’s glaciers outside of Antarctica.

Richard B. Alley, a geosciences professor at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the new study, described glaciers as “slow thermometers.” In an email to Mashable, he said:

Stick a fever thermometer in your mouth, and it takes a little while to adjust to the new environment and give the accurate temperature. In the same way, if there were a temperature change in a single step, with the temperature then held constant at that new level, a glacier will take a while to come into balance with the new temperature…

High scientific confidence that the human-dominated part of the warming is primarily responsible for glacier retreat thus doesn’t emerge until late in the 20th century, even though the “most likely” answer is that humans have been contributing at least a little for over a century, with a growing influence more recently.

Alley added that the study’s results “make perfect sense.”

“Warming melts glaciers, whether the warming is caused by natural or human causes. And because glaciers are slow thermometers, even if humans were to quit warming the climate, the glaciers will lose more mass in the future as they “catch up” with the warming that has already occurred,” he said.

Eric Steig, a University of Washington professor who was not involved in the new study, said it is “convincing, but not at all surprising.” He added that the lagged response of glaciers doesn’t go back more than a few decades for most small glaciers, and about a century for larger ones.

Marzeion, the study’s lead author, cautioned that there are still uncertainties about how some glaciers are responding to climate change, and improvements also need to be made to computer models of the climate. Those caveats, however, do not detract much from the bottom-line message that manmade global warming is now the primary reason why glaciers are melting.

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Who Owns the Ocean Floor?

August 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Deep-sea mining is coming. Some of the biggest mineral deposits are around the Cook Islands (above). (Brian Scantlebury/Flickr)

That cell phone you carry. It’s made from copper, gold, lead, nickel, zinc and a plethora of less known, hard-to-pronounce metals, not to mention the mined materials needed for the battery that powers the device. Same goes for your computer and other electronics you use on a daily basis.

The desire for these products is unflagging, with newer versions requiring an ever more complicated cocktail of minerals. Yet our resources on land aren’t limitless, so we’ve turned to the sea in search of new supply. “The world’s demand for minerals continues to increase and the terrestrial resources are becoming stretched,” writes the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which controls all mineral-related activities in international waters. “In addition, deep seabed resources often contain a higher concentration of valuable minerals than their terrestrial alternatives.”

The ocean floor teems with metal (at least in spots we’ve targeted so far): copper and nickel, cobalt and silver, even gold. Many consider it the next frontier in mining. Yet much of the ocean remains unstudied, meaning we have no baseline for determining what harm such a disturbance might cause. As we near the first deep-sea mining expeditions — Australian-based Nautilus has the proper permits and could be working below the waves as soon as 2016 — scientists are scrambling to answer these questions before we no longer can.

Heavy Metals
Ocean waters cover more than 70 percent of our Earth’s surface. Yet we’ve explored a mere droplet, according to NOAA. “For all of our reliance on the ocean, 95 percent of this realm remains unexplored, unseen by human eyes,” notes NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“The extent that we’ve covered is very, very small,” confirms marine biologist Christian Neumann. He’s part of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative or DOSI, a multi-disciplinary group formed in 2013 aimed at making sure the right people are paying attention to the right issues surrounding deep-sea mining.

DOSI and other projects like MIDAS (stands for Managing Impacts of Deep-seA reSource exploitation) have much work to do, because of the staggering amount we still don’t know.

We do know, however, that great potential sits on, and below, the seabed floor. “There are certainly rich deposits to be had in our deep oceans and now it is possible to reach them,” Maria Baker, project manager of the International Network for Scientific Investigations of Deep-Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP) told by e-mail.

The three types of deep-sea mining are worth describing briefly. The first, seafloor massive sulfides (SMS), are caused by hydrothermal fluids on or below the seafloor along the oceanic plate boundaries. “That’s the type of deposit off Papua New Guinea,” Phil Weaver of MIDAS told, and that’s where Nautilus plans to mine. The largest known SMS deposit is a 94-million-ton expanse of dry ore containing gold, silver, copper and zinc in the Red Sea.

An example of a manganese nodule, one of the three main sources to find mineral deposits on the ocean floor. (GRID-Arendal)

Cobalt-rich crusts, another type of mining, are deposits full of cobalt and other metals found on the seafloor, typically on seamounts, and are typically irregularly contoured. Despite the abundance of these crusts — one ISA estimate says they cover nearly 2 percent of the entire ocean floor — Weaver predicts this mining is the furthest off.

Which leaves manganese nodules, metal-containing rocks found thousands of feet below the surface that can be mined by sifting just the top foot or so of seabed. The Pacific holds an abundance of these, particularly in a spot called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone and around the Cook Islands. “The nodules in the Cook Islands lie in national waters. The rest is in international waters and requires permission from the International Seabed Authority,” Weaver said. “The ISA has only, so far, given license for exploration, not for exploitation. It’s still working on the regulations that will be put in place to govern and manage exploitation. Those won’t be in place for two or three years yet.”

Exploitation vs. Protection
So while mining of our ocean deep isn’t happening this month or next, it will happen in the near future. “It’s coming,” Neumann said. “But it’s not tomorrow, and it’s not the day after tomorrow.” That gives us time to ask — and hopefully answer — some important questions. Like: who owns the ocean floor, and how do we both explore deep-sea resources and care for the ecosystems that house them?

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that the deep-sea minerals found within a nation’s marine boundaries — 200 miles beyond their physical borders — belong to that nation. That border can expand up to 350 nautical miles, Weaver said, if the nation applies for and is granted an extension, but beyond that, waters fall under ISA jurisdiction, with any discoveries therein deemed the “common heritage of mankind.”

Like it or not, that phrase, the common heritage of mankind, seems to put the onus on all of us to understand how we’ll affect these deep-sea ecosystems. Many scientists working in this realm think so. “These environments are just so complex,” Baker said. “It is very important that careful monitoring of any mining activity that does go ahead is extremely well thought through and standardized.”

“[The deep ocean] is often forgotten or understood as something that isn’t valuable from an ecological standpoint,” added Neumann. “But it is.”

MIDAS is in the midst of a three-year, $16 million project to determine whether these ecosystems will mind our presence. Most recently, a team explored a region of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge near the Azores to study plumes from mining and species that live near hydrothermal vents, Nature reported. “We don’t know how far the plumes will travel and how much toxic material it will contain,” Weaver said. “It will suffocate bottom-living organisms in the vicinity of the mining. We don’t know how far it’ll spread.”

Scientists also don’t know just how toxic the material will be, whether it matters where excess water gets dumped, how species in extremely stable environments might handle disturbances. The list goes on. The idea isn’t to halt deep-sea mining, but rather to establish a baseline for what these ecosystems currently look like and a set of best practices, Baker said. “The depth of studies required to fully understand these systems and to gauge the potential impact on the environment would require significant funding and time for survey and analysis.”

There’s still time, but we need to act now, she added. “We are certainly running out of time.” As the mining industry moves forward, the environmental stewards can’t afford to stand still.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article listed Nautilus as Toronto-based.

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Ants May Boost CO2 Absorption Enough to Slow Global Warming

August 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Global Warming

What if you could build a brick fence in your backyard that would offset a portion of your daily carbon dioxide emissions, such as those produced on your drive home from work? Would you do it?

Ronald Dorn, professor of geography at Arizona State University in Tempe, would. Except the fence he has in mind wouldn’t be just constructed from any old brick. It would be coated with calcium or magnesium and inhabited by a colony of ants.

If this idea sounds bizarre to you, that’s probably because—as Dorn himself would admit—it is. Yet, he says, it is conceivable that people all over the world could one day use their own version of this mineral/ant–based method of CO2 capture to limit the gas in the atmosphere and thereby help control its global heating effects.

CO2 is currently the primary greenhouse gas emitted via human activities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Overview of Green House Gases.And the volume released has only increased since the industrial revolution, contributing to global warming.

Using ants to help capture CO2 and help fight global warming stems from a study Dorn published recently in Geology linking ants to the acceleration of natural carbon dioxide absorption in rock by up to 335 times, compared with absorption in ant-free areas.

Responding to the study, David Schwartzman, emeritus professor of biogeochemistry at Howard University who reviewed but was not a part of the research, said that encouraging ant colonization “will be important in carbon sequestration” from the atmosphere.

Of course, both he and Dorn note, the ants themselves may not always be necessary once researchers learn more about how the insects promote carbon sequestration. “I don’t know if you can just have massive ant colonies hanging around a power plant. But if we know what particular secretion of an ant gland is doing this trick, or combinations of secretions,” Dorn says, then those substances could potentially be produced in quantity.

How rock captures carbon
Dorn himself is not sure how ants perform their “magic,” but he does have a good handle on how certain rocks absorb carbon on their own.

He says that rock containing calcium and magnesium naturally absorbs carbon dioxide, which in turn transforms it into carbon-rich limestone, or dolomite. This carbon capture by rock has been happening for a very long time. In fact, over geologic time it probably helped to keep the planet’s atmospheric CO2 levels and its temperature from rising too high for life to survive. Dorn’s new research suggests ants could have been responsible for helping accelerate this process.

Overall Dorn says this chemical activity really is essential to making Earth habitable. It is so important that he has his students do a rather unusual ceremony when working out in the field for research projects. “When I take students on field trips, I make them kiss the limestone, because that limestone is just CO2 that’s just locked up in rocks and how Earth has remained habitable.”

From annoyance to anomaly
Dorn discovered the contribution ants can make almost by accident. In the 1990s, as part of studying the weathering of minerals, he stuck minerals in all sorts of different areas—in soil, in bare ground, in crusts ripe with microorganisms, in ground next to roots and in a plastic tube used as a control. You name it, he did it—he wanted a baseline from which to track changes over time, he says.

At first, the ants were mainly an annoyance. “I’d drill holes and they’d bite you,” he says. It wasn’t until after putting up with them for 25 years while taking measurements of the minerals’ weathering over time that he got his first inkling of their carbon-sequestering prowess. “It was pretty clear when I started processing samples of the minerals from the different areas that the ants were incredibly anomalous,” he says, referring to just how much the ants sped up the carbon-capture process. Follow-up work then quantified the amount of carbon stored in rocks visited by ants.

And although he still isn’t sure whether it’s the ants licking the rock, their microbes, their gland secretions or something else that accounts for the carbon enhancement in rocks, he does understand further insight into the process could potentially help people do a better job of capturing carbon from the atmosphere. “I don’t understand how the ants are doing the processes,” he says. “I would love to get funding to figure this out…. Then we could move forward to work with the chemical engineers or somebody to figure out if this magic trick can be efficiently and economically used. That would be a dream.”

Schwartzman agrees and says that such carbon sequestration will be imperative in bringing down the atmospheric level of CO2 to below 350 parts per million (it is now 400 ppm) “to avoid the worst consequences of ongoing climate change induced by anthropogenic releases of CO2 to the atmosphere.” Although he added that this carbon release must also be radically and rapidly curbed as well.

Regardless, there are over 10 trillion ants on Earth, according to some estimates. So, “clearly, more studies on the role of ants and other animals populating soils are needed to broaden our understanding of their significance,” Schwartzman says.

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