In 1994, scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory moved soil from moist, high-altitude sites to warmer and drier places lower in altitude, and vice versa. In 2011, they returned to the sites and looked again at the soil microbes and found that they had done little to adapt functionally to their new home. That's a bad sign, experts say, for a world convulsed by a changing climate.
"These microbes have somehow lost the capacity to adapt to the new conditions," said Vanessa Bailey, one of the authors of the study, published this month in PLOS One. That not what scientists anticipated, and it "calls into question the resilience of the overall environment to climate change," she said. "Soil is the major buffer for environmental changes, and the microbial community is the basis for that resilience."
As snow and ice melt, it's fairly straightforward to grasp what climate change means for the future of, say, polar bears in the Arctic or penguins in Antarctica. But it's far more difficult to understand what is happening to the planetary microbiome in the earth's crust and water, a quadrillion quadrillion microorganisms, according to Scientific American. Yet it is far more important, for microbes run the world. They are key players that perpetuate life on the planet, provide numerous ecosystem services, and serve as a major bulwark against environmental changes.
But they can also cause serious problems — as the world's permafrost melts, microbes are turning once-frozen vegetation into greenhouse gases at a clip that is alarming scientists.