Subglacial methanogenesis: A potential climatic amplifier?



[1] Subglacial environments are a previously neglected component of the Earth's global carbon cycle, a reflection of the view held until recently that they are dominated by abiotic and oxic conditions. Here we provide a realistic assessment of the theory that the basal regions of the ice sheets that formed over North America and Europe during glaciations were host to significant populations of anaerobic microorganisms, including methanogens, able to metabolize organic carbon sequestered during interglacials and overridden during Quaternary glacials. In doing so, we review the current evidence for subglacial methane release during deglaciation, estimate the size of the subglacial reservoir of organic carbon (SOC), and assess the amount of SOC available to subglacial microbes and the likely pathways and rates of carbon turnover. We then discuss the fate of subglacial methane and the potential impact of its release on atmospheric methane concentrations. We calculate that the SOC equates to 418–610 Pg C and includes carbon from terrestrial soils/vegetation, peatlands, lake, and marine sediments. The SOC that is potentially available for microbial conversion to methane is smaller than this estimate due to (1) glacial erosion, (2) accumulation of recalcitrant organic carbon compounds over time, (3) conversion to carbon dioxide by aerobic/anaerobic respiration, and (4) incomplete conversion of labile organic matter to methane. We estimate that the total SOC available for conversion to methane is 63 Pg C. Our estimates of methane production potentials span a wide range because of the current uncertainty surrounding subglacial metabolic rates. We believe, however, that there is a strong likelihood that subglacial microbes could convert 63 Pg of SOC to methane during a glacial cycle. If this were the case, release of this methane from the ice sheet margins during retreat would need to be episodic in order to significantly impact atmospheric methane concentrations. Our findings suggest that it may well be important to consider subglacial environments as active components of the Earth's carbon cycle. Conclusive determination of the potential impact of subglacial methane production on atmospheric methane concentrations during deglaciation, however, awaits more precise determination of the ability of subglacial microbes to degrade organic carbon components and their associated rates of metabolism under in situ conditions.