Ants and carbon sequestration

Aside from a swift but highly unlikely abandonment of fossil fuels, reduction of greenhouse warming depends to a large extent, possibly entirely, on somehow removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Currently the most researched approach is simply pumping emissions into underground storage in gas permeable rock, but an important target is incorporating anthropogenic carbon in carbonate minerals through chemical interaction with potentially reactive rocks. In a sense this is a quest to exploit equilibria involving carbon compounds that dominate natural chemical weathering and to sequester CO2 in solid, stable minerals.

The two most likely minerals to participate readily in weathering that involves CO2 dissolved in water are plagioclase feldspar, a calcium-rich aluminosilicate and olivine, a magnesium silicate. Both are abundant in mafic and ultramafic rocks, such as basalt and peridotite, which themselves are among the most common rocks exposed at the Earth’s surface. The two minerals, being anhydrous, are especially prone to weathering reactions involving acid waters that contain hydrogen ions, and in the presence of CO2 they yield stable carbonates of calcium and magnesium respectively. Despite lots of exposed basalts and ultramafic rocks, clearly such natural sequestration is incapable of absorbing emissions as fast as they are produced.

One means of speeding up weathering is to grind up plagioclase- and olivine-bearing rocks and spread the resulting gravel over large areas; as particles become smaller their surface area exposed to weathering increases. Yet it doesn’t take much pondering to realise that a great deal of energy would be needed to produce sufficient Ca- and Mg-rich gravel to take up the approximately 10 billion tonnes of CO2 being released each year by burning fossil fuels: though quick by geological standards the reaction rates involved are painfully slow in the sense of what the climatic future threatens to do. So is there any way in which these reactions might be speeded up?

Two biological agencies are known to accelerate chemical weathering, or are suspected to do so: plant roots and animals that live in soil. Ronald Dorn of Arizona State University set out to investigate the extent to which such agencies do sequester carbon dioxide, under the semi-arid conditions that prevail in Arizona and Texas (Dorn, R.I. 2014. Ants as a powerful biotic agent of olivine and plagioclase dissolution. Geology, v. 42, p. 771-774). His was such a simple experiment that it is a wonder it had not been conducted long ago; but it actually took more than half his working life. Spaced over a range of topographic elevations, Dorn used an augur at each site to drill five half-metre holes into the root mats of native trees, established ant and termite colonies and bare soil surfaces free of vegetation or animal colonies, filling each with sand-sized crushed basalt.

Empire of the Ants (film)
Film poster for Empire of the Ants (starring Joan Collins) (credit: Wikipedia)

Every five years thereafter he extracted the basalt sand from one of the holes at each site and each soil environment. To assess how much dissolution had occurred he checked for changes in porosity, and heated the samples to temperatures where carbonates break down to discover how much carbonate had been deposited. That way he was able to assess the cumulative changes over a 25 year period relative to the bare-ground control sites. The results are startling: root mats achieved 11 to 49 times more dissolution than the control; termites somewhat less, at 10 to 19 times; while ants achieved 53 to 177 times more dissolution. While it was certain that the samples had been continuously exposed to root mats throughout, the degree of exposure to termites and ants is unknown, so the animal enhancements of dissolution are probably minima.

Microscopic examination of mineral grains exposed to ant activity shows clear signs of surface pitting and other kinds of decay. Chemically, the samples showed that exposure to ants consistently increased levels of carbonate in the crushed basalt sand compared with controls, with levels rising by 2 to 4% by mass, with some variation according to ant species. Clearly, there is some scope for a role for ants in carbon sequestration and storage; after all, there are estimated to be around 1013 to 1016 individual ants living in the world’s soils. In the humid tropics the total mass of ants may be up to 4 times greater than all mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined. There is more to learn, but probably a mix of acid secretions and bioturbation by ants and termites is involved in their dramatic effect on weathering. One interesting speculation is that ants may even have played a role in global cooling through the Cenozoic, having evolved around 100 Ma ago.

Yes, it was hot during the Permian

For those of us living in what was the heart of Pangaea – Europe and North America – more than 250 Ma ago this item’s title might seem like the ultimate truism. However, despite our vision of desert dune sands and evaporating inland seas, glaciation blanketed much of the Gondwana part of the supercontinent until the Middle Permian then lying athwart the South Pole. That would go a long way to accounting for extreme dryness at low to mid-latitudes, especially in the deep interior of Pangaea, but just how hot might tropical climates have been? The deglaciation of Gondwana was abrupt and has been touted as an analogue for a possible anthropogenic closure to the Cenozoic glacial epoch that began around 34 Ma in Antarctica and has periodically gripped land at northern latitudes as low as 40°N for the last 2.5 Ma. Since the present distribution of continents is totally different from the unique pole-to-pole shape of Pangaea, that is probably a view that is not widely held by palaeoclimatologists. Nonetheless, getting hard data on Permian conditions has an intrinsic interest for most geoscientists.

The bottom of Death Valley, USA
Playa lake in Death Valley, USA (credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best ways of measuring past temperatures, whether surficial or deep within the crust, almost directly is based on fluids trapped within minerals formed at the time of interest. In Permian strata there is no shortage of suitable material in the form of evaporite minerals, especially common salt or halite.  A distinctive chevron-like texture develops in halite that forms at the water-atmosphere interface in playa lakes that dry out every year. When thin sections of samples that contain fluid inclusions are slowly heated the air bubbles trapped in salt during crystallisation gradually homogenise with the other trapped fluids. Based on samples that have formed at the present day under a range of air temperatures, the temperature of homogenisation indicates the prevailing air temperature accurately. So well, in fact, that it is possible to assess diurnal temperature variations in suitable halite crystals.

Results have been obtained from Middle Permian halites in Kansas, USA (Zambito, J.J. & Benison, K.C. 2013. Extremely high temperatures and paleoclimate trends recorded in Permian ephemeral lake halite. Geology, v. 41, p. 587-590). In part of the section studied air temperatures reached 73°C, compared with a modern maximum of 57°C recorded in halites from the playas of Death Valley. Moreover, they exhibit changes of more than 30°C during daily cycles. But that kind of weather is common in other hot dry areas today, such as the Dasht-e Lut in eastern Iran. Also, the full data show crystallisation at lower temperatures (maxima of 30-40°C) in part of the sequence. What is noteworthy is that these data are the first quantitative indicators of weather before the last 2.5 Ma. Since evaporites extend back into the Precambrian, the method will undoubtedly extend accuracy and precision to paleoclimate  where only proxies and a modicum of guesswork were previously available.