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Natural Awakenings

Jurassic Ark: Extinction is Not Forever

Tiny organisms that vanished from the Earth’s biosphere eons ago are still around—they’re just buried under miles of polar ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. As the forces of climate change cause the ice to melt faster every year, John Priscu, a professor of ecology at Montana State University and pioneer in the study of Antarctic microbiology, predicts that bacteria and other microbes could awaken from their hibernation and threaten contemporary species.

Priscu notes, “It’s a way of recycling genomes. You put something on the surface of the ice and a million years later, it comes back out.” He has spent the past 28 summers near the South Pole, finding living bacteria in cores of 420,000-year-old ice and multiplying them in his laboratory. Other researchers report bringing far older bacteria back to life.

Thawing glaciers could also churn out enormous compost piles of decaying biomass. It’s estimated that all the carbon from organic matter in and under the ice sheets, if converted to carbon dioxide, would equal a decade’s worth of emissions from today’s vehicles worldwide. Not all of the carbon would convert directly to greenhouse gases, but any release would add to the huge amount already expected from thawing permafrost. “This is a big pool of carbon to be considered,” Priscu warns. “We really should look at this.”

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