Sources and sinks of methane beneath polar ice
Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 3:25 PM
Several icy moons of the outer solar system carry subsurface oceans containing many times the volume of liquid water on Earth and may provide the greatest volume of habitable space in our solar system. Functional sub-ice polar ecosystems on Earth provide compelling models for the habitability of extraterrestrial sub-ice oceans. A key feature of sub-ice environments is that most of them receive little to no solar energy. Consequently, organisms inhabiting these environments must rely on chemical energy to assimilate either carbon dioxide or organic molecules to support their metabolism. Methane can be utilized by certain bacteria as both a carbon and energy source. Isotopic data show that methane in Earth’s polar lakes is derived from both biogenic and thermogenic sources. Thermogenic sources of methane in the thermokarst lakes of the north slope of Alaska yield supersaturated water columns during winter ice cover that support active populations of methanotrophs during the polar night. Methane in the permanently ice-covered lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica varies widely in concentration and is produced either by contemporary methanogenesis or is a relic from subglacial flow. Rate measurements revealed that microbial methane oxidation occurs beneath the ice in both the arctic and Antarctic lakes. The first samples collected from an Antarctic subglacial environment beneath 800 m of ice (Subglacial Lake Whillans) revealed an active microbial ecosystem that has been isolated from the atmosphere for many thousands of years. The sediments of Lake Whillans contained high levels of methane with an isotopic signature that indicates it was produced via methanogenesis. The source of this methane appears to be from the decomposition of organic carbon deposited when this region of Antarctica was covered by the sea. Collectively, data from these sub-ice environments show that methane transformations play a key role in microbial community metabolism. The discovery of functional microbial ecosystems in Earth’s sub-ice aquatic environments together with what we know about the geochemistry of extraterrestrial ice-covered water worlds provide a compelling case that sub-ice oceans, such as those on Europa and Enceladus, may support microbial life.