Friday, September 5, 2014

25 year experiment shows ants can break down minerals, sequester CO2

And that reaction pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. 

If you want a role model for work ethic in the animal kingdom, you’d do well to pick the ant. 

Maintaining tunnels, gathering food, and defending the colony are all in a solid day’s work. Now you might be able to cross off another item on the ant to-do list: pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Over geologic timescales, the Earth has a convenient regulator on its thermostat: the weathering of many minerals. During their breakdown, they react with carbon dioxide, which converts them into a clay mineral while also producing carbonate. In a warmer climate, weathering ramps up, removing more CO2 from the atmosphere. This provides a cooling influence. In a cooler climate, weathering slows and CO2 can accumulate in the atmosphere, nudging temperatures upwards.

Some of this is simply the result of physical weathering of exposed rock at the surface, but living organisms contribute as well. Tree roots penetrate cracks and pry rocks apart. Lichens and fungi in soil slowly dissolve rock. Burrowing things move material around.

Quantifying the influence of biology is a real challenge. Some things, like vegetation, have been studied but we remain ignorant about the weathering work done by many other organisms. Among the ones we've been ignorant about? Ants.

Arizona State’s Ronald Dorn has made a career studying weathering. Before that career started, he got some advice. “Luna Leopold was a famous geomorphologist at Cal Berkeley when I was a master’s student,” Dorn told Ars. “I had a couple of classes form Luna, and he urged us all to start baseline experiments when we started a new job as faculty. He said that geomorphology has few such long-term data gathering projects and that it would be important.”

So a little over 25 years ago, he crushed up a batch of Hawaiian basalt into fresh sand and found interesting places to bury it. That included sites in the Catalina Mountains of Arizona and at Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. The basalt sand went into half-meter holes augered into a variety of environments including bare ground, tree roots, and ant nests—with sand left in an open plastic pipe as a baseline.

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1 comment:

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