Climate Crisis Could Change Permafrost Soil Microbes, With ‘Unknown Consequences’ for Arctic Ecosystems, Scientists Say
Can the past predict the future?
In the case of communities of microbes living in the Arctic permafrost, researchers at the University of Alberta think it might. The scientists discovered that the microbes and chemistry of Arctic soil changed dramatically following the end of the last Ice Age, and the same thing could happen again due to the climate crisis.
"Since soils are where plants grow and where nearly all terrestrial life lives, this could have big impacts on the entire Arctic ecosystem," study coauthor and University of Alberta associate professor Brian Lanoi said in a university press release. "Our work shows this happened before, and it is possible that this could happen again as the result of current climate change."
How changes in ancient soil microbes could predict the future of the Arctic: https://t.co/bXBDfEeMFd #UAlberta… https://t.co/qj9PQShzDX— University of Alberta (@University of Alberta)1598547633.0
The study, published in Frontiers in Environmental Science this month, helped fill a gap in scientists' understanding of how the end of the Ice Age impacted soil communities. The shift between the Ice Age (the Pleistocene) and the current era (the Holocene) led to dramatic and well-documented changes in plant and animal life, but, until now, it had not been clear if it caused equally dramatic changes to the communities of microbes living in the Arctic soil.
However, previous studies had looked at permafrost sediments dating from either the Pleistocene or Holocene. To better understand the transition, the University of Alberta researchers looked at sediment that showed the transition between the two geological epochs. They then analyzed the samples under sterile conditions for both their genetic makeup and chemical composition, and found that both markers were very different before and after the transitional period.
"We found that both the microbial communities and the chemical parameters are stable within each era until they cross a threshold, driven by the change in climate," Lanoil explained in the press release. "After that threshold, there is an abrupt switch to a new microbial community and new soil chemistry. We argue that modern climate change could lead to a similar transition in state for soils in Arctic ecosystems, with unknown consequences."
Because current Arctic soil microbes help process carbon and nitrogen, a change in their makeup could impact the carbon and nitrogen cycles, the press release explained. However, Lanoil pointed out that more research is needed to understand how a change in soil microbes impacts the surrounding ecosystem.
The researchers did note that warming in the Western Arctic is now much greater than at the end of the last Ice Age, and the region may be reaching its highest temperatures in the last 14,000 years.
Previous research has shown that warming might not only change the composition of Arctic soil, it might also release microbes that have been frozen there. Scientists have warned that the climate crisis could cause deadly bacteria long trapped in frozen soil to reemerge.
"Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark," evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie told BBC in 2017. "Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past."
A block of thawing permafrost topples off the Alaska coast. U.S. Geological Survey
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Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
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