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Warming forces microbes into dangerous climate feedbacks-proceed at your peril warn scientists.

4 min read
Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of algae.

The climate is extremely complicated and overwhelming for those of us that are not scientists. One thing we know for sure about humanity's massive science project with our atmosphere, however, is that pumping unfathomable amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere damages the interconnectivity of Earths ecosystems resulting in a cascading series of changes that can exacerbate the horrifying changes already in progress.

Thirty microbiologists have a code red warning for climate scientists along with the rest of humanity,  the microbial world is being left out of climate calculations.

Climate News Network writes on the code red warning from those very scientists.

LONDON, 28 June, 2019 − Thirty scientists from nine nations have issued a challenge to the rest of climate science: don’t forget the microbes.

They argue that research is ignoring the silent, unseen majority that makes up the microbial world. Lifeforms that add up to a huge proportion of living matter on the planet are being largely left out of climate calculations.

Microbes have been around for 3.8 billion years, manipulating sunlight and turning carbon dioxide into carbon-based living tissue, and the mass of all the microbes on the planet probably contains 70 billion tonnes of carbon alone.

They are biodiversity’s bottom line. They are the arbiters of the planet’s resources. They were the first living things on the planet, and will almost certainly be the last survivors.

They are the only living things at vast depths and colossal pressures. Far below the planetary surface, many survive at temperatures beyond boiling point, in lakes composed of alkali, and some can even digest radioactive material.


It is important to remind ourselves that we are not experiencing the new normal for our climate, not yet anyway. We are only at the beginning of a new normal and so far, we already read climate emergency headlines such as “unprecedented” “never seen before” “once in a lifetime” “unstoppable”, and “the great dying”. Changes to our lives will be robust and jarringly abnormal, and it will only be decades or even years away when it arrives.


Discover Magazine writes:

The world’s dirt holds on to some 2.2 trillion tons of carbon. That’s more than the combined amount of carbon in the atmosphere and in vegetation.  And what controls how much carbon soil can hang on to and how much it releases? Microbes. Their carbon gatekeeping is critical, because the element is one of the key components of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), which is currently at record levels in Earth’s atmosphere.

Although plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere during food-making photosynthesis, they also release the greenhouse gas back into the atmosphere during respiration, i.e., when they break down that food. And temperature changes influence how much carbon plants take up or let go of.

The same is true of soil microbes. “In terrestrial environments, microbes release a range of important greenhouse gases to the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide), and climate change is causing these emissions to increase,” Cavicchioli said. That’s because, as with plants, hotter temperatures cause soil microbes to release more carbon. And since climate-change-induced warming is only getting worse, scientists expect more carbon from vegetation and soils will go into the atmosphere.

But there are microbes other than the ones in soil that impact climate change. Cows, sheep, goats and other similar animals have microbes in their guts that help the animals digest their food. However, as a by-product of this digestion, these microbes produce methane — a potent greenhouse gas whose levels in the atmosphere have ballooned in the last five years.

Rice fields, too, release methane into the atmosphere. To grow the crop, farmers flood the fields, which are home to many microbes. These microorganisms produce methane in anaerobic environments where little to no oxygen is freely available. Since rice fields are flooded with water, where oxygen is chemically bound to hydrogen and unusable to the microbes, the conditions are ripe for the little organisms to pump out methane.  

Tropical soil disturbance in the Congo and Amazon, as well as the rainforests in South Asia, due to our overpopulated world's hunger for palm oil along with other resources, has been confirmed as yet another hidden source of CO2.

I will conclude with the Scientists warning to humanity in their abstract published in the journal Nature.

Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of algae.
Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of ice algae. These microbes thrive in sea ice 'houses' and are the beginning of many food webs, which branches out to feed all larger lifeforms. The melting sea ice has a downstream effect on ice algae, which means a diminished food web and greater risk of starving ocean life. Microbes go dark to stay warm in cooler climates

In the Anthropocene, in which we now live, climate change is impacting most life on Earth. Microorganisms support the existence of all higher trophic life forms. To understand how humans and other life forms on Earth (including those we are yet to discover) can withstand anthropogenic climate change, it is vital to incorporate knowledge of the microbial ‘unseen majority’. We must learn not just how microorganisms affect climate change (including production and consumption of greenhouse gases) but also how they will be affected by climate change and other human activities. This Consensus Statement documents the central role and global importance of microorganisms in climate change biology. It also puts humanity on notice that the impact of climate change will depend heavily on responses of microorganisms, which are essential for achieving an environmentally sustainable future.

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