Solar CITIES trekked up to Cordova Alaska in January of 2010 to investigate this phenomenon with Dr. Walter Anthony on our first Blackstone Ranch Foundation/National Geographic Innovation Challenge Grant.
Since most climate models assumed the permafrost would stay, well, PERMANENT, the methane now being released by these newly awakened bacteria wasn't accounted for and is quite problematic, given the extent of thermokarst methane burping lakes all over the arctic circle.
But it isn't just the high latitudes we have to worry about now that climate change is taking its toll.
The high altitudes may be the next "time bomb" starting to go off as the glaciers melt.
Methanogens at the top of the world...
From evidence we gathered on the second Blackstone Ranch Foundation/National Geographic Innovation Challenge Grant this past May of 2011, it seems there are also active psychrophiles up at Everest Base camp, 5300 meters above sea level.
|Dr. T.H. Culhane numbs his fingers filling a discarded coke bottle with sediments from under the ice in a small glacial lake at Mt. Everest base camp.|
|Culhane noticed that bubbles had not only accumulated under the ice, but that tapping on the ice liberated more bubbles from the sediments, indicating that biological activity was going on at freezing termperatures.|
On an environmental survey to Everest Base camp from Lukla, looking at renewable energy systems with Dr. Alton Byers, Director of the Mountain Institute, Caroline Howe, co-founder and CEO of Loop Solutions and the India Youth Climate Network, and Debbie Marcinkowski, Associate Director Strategic Alliances & Global Partnerships for the GAVI alliance, Culhane noticed that the glacial lakes were teeming with bubbles under the ice. Rocks tossed through the ice released a flurry of bubbles. Curious, Culhane noted with the tip of his umbrella that when one punched holes in the ice deliberately, bubbles didn't just come up from the puncture location but were released from sediments in a wide area surrounding the puncture (within a two meter radius) , suggesting that they were being kept in solution under pressure and that the sediments themselves were relatively rich in the gas. A tap on the ice seemed to provide conditions for the release of bubbles from the sediments.
Caroline Howe videotaped our initial look at the glacial lake bubbles, which can be seen on Youtube here:
We didn't have any source of fire up at base camp so couldn't do a flame test there to see if the bubbles were really methane but Culhane has since confirmed that the gas is indeed CH4
Culhane collected some of the sediments from the lake at 5300 meters, shown in the video, in a discarded .5 liter coke bottle, filled it with lake water, sealed it and brought the suspected bacteria home to Germany.
The bottle kept bubbling during the first day trekking down the mountain from 5200 meters, creating a few milliliters of gas space at the top of the bottle under positive pressure. At Gorak Shep (the last village on the way to Everest Base camp) Culhane showed the bottle to a French couple who work for an oil company but who are travelling through Nepal volunteering on renewable energy projects. They confirmed the observations of Howe and Culhane that there was active bubbling going on in the bottle. On the way down the mountain, however, the bubbling stopped. Perhaps the rise in atmospheric pressure inhibited further gas production or the methanogens had used up most of the carbon available to them.
About 5 days later, when Culhane got to Lukla to fly to Katmandu, Culhane ran into the French couple again. They asked if there had been any more biological activity and Culhane decided to try and ignite the little gas that had collected. Though there was positive pressure in the bottle (an interesting observation, the French man noted, given that Lukla is only at 2500 meters and with the increase in atmospheric pressure the bottle should have been collapsing rather than distended) we were unable to see any ignition.
After opening the bottle Culhane added about an eigth of a teaspoon of sugar and the group noted that micro bubble production began after only five minutes. This was suggestive -- it at least
showed that there were bacteria still alive in the bottle. The formation of microbubbles continued throughout the night and into the morning and was once again noted by the French couple.
Culhane kept the bottle in the refrigerator of the Tibet Hotel in Kathmandu and when he got
back to Germany on June 28th about 5 ml of gas had accumulated. He did a flame test and got a distinct "pop" when he openend the bottle.
He then added a little more sugar and let it sit in the dark for a few days at 22 C.
On June 2nd, Culhane flame tested again and once again got the tell tale combustion "pop". Bubbles are now rising from the sediments in the bottle. Culhane added a few more grains of sugar on June 2nd in preparation for transfer to a larger container. Every indication is that what is accumulating in the bottle is methane and that this methane is being produced by the bacteria in the sediments through sugar metabolism.
Interestingly, when opened, the water in the bottle gives off a distinct odor that Culhane has only smelled once before -- coming from the bottles of Alaskan psychrophiles that were sent to him by Dr. Walter Anthony from Alaska. The odor is different from that which the mesophyllic bacteria give off. The mesophylls have a "manure like" odor, whereas the psychrophiles have a sour and slightly acrid smell.
From an aesthetic viewpoint there is no question -- the bottle from Everest smells identical to the odor created by bacteria from Alaska's thermokarst lakes.
Now Culhane will transfer the fluid to a larger container to try and get more gas for further testing. It must be methane, we reason, because neither CO2 nor O2 would makethat explosive pop (think back to your flame tests in high school). It appears to be close to confirmation that the lakes up in the Himalayas are producing CH4 "at the top of the world".
One research question that stands out is, "what is the impact of a release of methane at 5000 meters and above? Does the altitude of CH4 emissions have any impact on the greenhouse effect that the gases can cause?"
Meanwhile the psychrophiles that Dr. Katey Walter Anthony sent from Alaska have finally started doing well in their new 60 liter home in our upstairs bathroom, so Culhane will be able to compare the bacteria from the high latitudes and high altitudes. He thought he had killed them off when they stopped producing bubbles between March and May, but when he got home from Nepal they seemed to have come back to life and are doing well. They make about 5 liters of flammable gas every day without feeding (possibly still using up the carbon from feeding food wastes in March); it took them months to adapt, but they seem fine now. Culhane hopes to get similar results when he transfesr the Everest bacteria to their new home.
The threat of active alpine psychrophiles
Dr. Dhananjay Regmi, who has been working in Kathmandu with our team leader, Dr. Alton Byers of the Mountain Institute, and who was instrumental in making our expedition a success, confirmed that psychrophilic methanogens "waking up" in the alpine environments as the glaciers melt could have profound impacts on climate.
Dr. Regmi did his Ph.D. on permafrost in the Khumbu and other Himalayan regions and his data on the permafrost conditions pertaining near Everest suggest that they could be melting faster than we expect.
In his publications (see
Study of Permafrost in the Nepal Himalaya") Regmi shows that permafrost is particularly prevalent in the Khumbu region of Nepal.
Dr. Regmi and Dr. Culhane had a long discussion about the psychrophiles we found in the Khumbu; we were wondering where they might be getting their carbon from (for the past 50 years or more yak dung and human wastes have been washing into the glacial lakes, but that is recent and probably trivial).
Dr. Regmi suggested that under the permafrost should be huge deposits of "Shilajeet" or "Shilajit" (gathered from the region and used in Ayurvedic medicine, containing triterpenes and aromatic carboxylic acid, as well as humic acid and fulvic acid). These could be left over from the ancient Tethys sea, pushed up as the Himalayas formed and now subject to psychrophilic action as the permafrost melts, creating a similar time bomb at the top of the world to that which Dr. Katey Walter is exploring as the thermokarst lakes melt in the arctic.
If this is true (and there is no reason to doubt it, given what we have observed) then alpine regions, from the Himalayas to the Mountains of the Moon and Mt. Kilamanjaro, to the Andes and the Rockies and the Alps themselves, could be caught in an inexorable feedback loop where the melting of the glaciers creates conditions for psychrophiles, now thought to exist everywhere where there is permafrost and glaciers, to release stored carbon as methane that will only accelerate the melting that is going on "at the top of the world".
If this is so, then the only alternative seems to be to try to harness methanogens all over the world to quickly replace fossil fuels with biogas fuels and hope that we can remove excess anthropogenic greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at somewhere near the rate they will now be being naturally produced.
Psychrophiles produce truly "natural gas" as they waken from their formerly permafrosted slumber. Our only hope is to try to get the "unnatural gases" that we produce in check.