Carbon cycle reveals extent of our impact on the atmosphere, and new life
I'm sent to a wild idea. They thought once offered by Tommy Gold. Way Back that are carbon resources come from underground care of micro organisms a crazy idea while the rest of the Sancho is presented by called Smith and this is healthy. Adventure begins one day in two thousand and eight Professor Bob Hazen mineral just at the Carnegie Institute for Science. Got The kind of fun. Colt that most researches would only dream of. I'm calling from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation and I was wondering if you would like to run a ten year one hundred million dollar program to study the origin of life. Okay that is not a phone call you get every day. This ten year international project would come to be known as the Deep Carbon Observatory and it would pull in hundreds of millions of dollars moines funding. So had it Bob. Hazem come to get that phone call. It's a strange story. I sometimes give public lectures. Our talks. And I was commissioned by my institution the Carnegie Institution to go to New York and to give an after dinner chaff to a group of potential funders. Kind of this informal found thing talking about the possibility that life might have originated deep on the ocean floor in a volcanic environment at the event. He also handed out copies of his book. Genesis which discussed some controversial ideas including that. There might be pockets of life. Deep below the Earth's surface and that fossil fuels might be created without dead organic matter. It caught the attention of someone at the talk and officer from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation a philanthropic group that supports research. This officer was convinced that while these ideas might be right they were at least testable and with testing incredibly the project would lead to the discovery of huge amounts of life deep below the Earth's crust a complex biosphere underneath efate and it would discover new ways that fossil fuels can be made in the Earth's mantle. But before we get to these what happened after professor. Hazen got that coal. It stunned me but I have to recover fairly quickly because I've been thinking about some big projects and I reply while it's to focus to be thinking just about the deep origin of life but there is a much larger question about carbon the element carbon which is so critical to life and to climate into environment and resources and new materials and all these different aspects and we really don't understand carbon in earth. We don't understand carbon in the mantle in the core even in the deeper crust the deep carbon cycle. We don't understand. I said you could really run a wonderful program that integrated aspects of physics and chemistry geology and biology even astronomy. You could bring them all together in one program. The focused on this critical element so in May of two thousand and eight. We held the deep carbon cycle workshop. And the Thuesday thousand was just incredible. The ideas flowed in the Sloan representatives. Who they're just loved it. They thought wow. They felt the energy in so Alfred. P Sloan Foundation jumped at the chance and said let's start the deep carbon observatory one of the things that kind of stood out to me. When I first saw the name was a kind of sounds. Like maybe there's some sort of base down below the surface looking at things like an observatory does but it's more of a kind of metaphorical observatory isn't it is metaphorical observatory. It's sort of funny. Deep is a very relative term. If you're talking about microbes deep could be one hundred meters down. You're talking about the core. Could be eight thousand miles down. The carbon part of deep carbs. Atari is a little misleading because carbon never exists in isolation it's always with other elements. It's with water. It's with other volatile with rocks. So it's certainly not just an observatory that looks at carbon and as you suggest is not an observatory to distributed way of thinking about things but really the idea of observatory that's distributed around the world where we have more than one thousand people more than fifty countries involved one hundred fifty field sites so we're thinking about carbon observing we're measuring. Were studying in various ways. The goal for this global network of scientists was to expand upon the COB and cycle above the surface. We have a clear picture of how Kaban moves through living things into the atmosphere and the ocean and then into the ground but our understanding of just how deep these carbon cycle can go was less clear so many people have studied the carbon cycle but they studied the near surface. Co Two in the atmosphere and and gases the come volcanoes there's carbon dissolved in the oceans and there are various kinds of rocks limestone and coal and hydrocarbons and so forth fuels in the shallow crust. All these are very accessible to study and measure but what we realized is that. That's just literally that ten percent tip of an iceberg ninety percent of the carbon is deep. It's buried it's hidden where we have to have very indirect understanding and so how do you study that carbon you study places where the carbon may have been brought to the surface by unusual processes for example diamonds that are brought to the surface by incredible eruptions? Where lavas come from one hundred miles down? We learn about carbon from plate. Tectonics the great seduction zones. The caused violent earthquakes off the coast of South America and Japan but also the places in volcanoes were the carbon comes back from the deep interior out into the atmosphere so there's this hidden carbon psych get incident but the deep carbon observatory was resolved. We're going to try to understand the physical chemical and the biological implications of this hidden carbon cycle. Why why would we want to know about Kaban moving deeply below the surface? What are the implications for US up here? These days were very interested in changes in Earth's atmosphere which might trigger for example greenhouse effect enhancements that caused global warming the closed climate change. That goes all sorts of changes. And so we're talking about human activity that introduces more carbon compounds into the atmosphere. And the fact is that carbon that's being added to a background level. That's already been an earth's atmosphere for many many millions of years so we're going to understand the modern carbon cycle in what humans might be doing to it. We have to understand the baseline of what earth does as a planet independent of human interactions. So one of the things we do of course is to establish that baseline where is the carbon? How does it move? What is the exchange of carbon between the deep interior in the surface? And are human activities. A significant change over that or is is earth so vast humans impact is just a tiny tiny fraction. We this is a kind of question that has not been fully resolved until the kinds of experiments kind of measurements that we've done with a deep carbon observatory. Professor Hazen became the Executive Director of the Deep Carbon Observatory and the ten year project wrapped up at the end of two thousand. Nineteen one of the major strands of this project has been cataloging deep live and as I mentioned earlier. They is a surprising amount. Living in the deep geologist AKARA MAGNABOSCO was the lead author of a paper published in two thousand eighteen with Simon credible new estimates of just how much might be wriggling around in the Earth's crust in our most recent estimates by looking at all this L. counts and various studies that have been conducted to look for life beneath the ocean and beneath the continent. We found that around. Seventy percent of Earth's bacteria in our Kea are actually living in the subsurface rather than in the soil in the oceans and on the surface of our planet so when you say bacteria and Kia. We're talking the very small micro organisms that we do see here on the surface but they just living in huge numbers below the surface. Then yes living underground. In the reason there's so many in such a large portion are underground is because what we deem as the habitable area the subsurface is just such a large volume the amount of habitable zone within the subsurface is about twice the volume of the world's oceans. When you go at just sheer sheer numbers of individual cells in the subsurface. There's around one times. Ten to the thirtieth which would be enough. Bacteria are key to cover the surface of Jupiter twice. And how do we know this? This sort of started in the twenties actually in coal mines while they were looking if there was anything living there of course for early years when people were looking for life there was a big question of what people are. Sampling was truly native to the subsurface or this was contamination in the eighties or so this is when people really refined methods for showing that the bacteria archea that were being pulled up from underneath the surface were actually native to underground and the past. Ten years has really seen a surge of research due to this deep Carbon Observatory initiative to get these estimates the team combined geological data with thousands of cell count measurements from around the world. These measurements came from pockets of fluid. There were hundreds of Mehta's or sometimes even kilometers below the surface. Nice specialty is not from the marine environments but actually from what lives underneath continents so the way that we're accessing that is through their drilling rigs or going into mines and accessing. What we call fracture fluids so actually when you're mining interesting thing that happens is the miners will drill these exploratory boreholes to make sure that the area they're going to blast as they expand the mind doesn't have any water because if they blasted into it the whole mind would flood in so if they actually are doing one of these exploratory boreholes they hit water we can collect leaders leaders of water take cell counts and performed DNA. Arnie faced analyses to look at the microorganisms. Now I believe it's not just Akhir bacteria that a found below the earth's surface occasionally there Fungi and even small worms and other creatures that have made their way down there as well. That's something quite exciting. Which we've seen. Within the South African subsurface there are all sorts of creatures when we sample deep underground including a specific name until that seems to be somewhat diverged from its surface relatives and as well as insects and algae and fungi have also been encountered and within the marine settings. Fungi have been found within the deep sediments as well how might these organisms have got there if that is they went introduced there when the bullet holes drilled? That's a big open question in in one way that we've been looking at it and we're seeing is that essentially seismic activity may play a role in actually bringing organisms down from the surface. It doesn't need to necessarily be a big earthquake to make this happen. Just some shifting to open a fracture space to bring down the fluids. No one of these creatures living on. How are they able to survive? This has been a big point of research. What we're finding is that these bacteria in Kiara able to what we call three rocks so the same way that we breathe oxygen to get our energy the bacteria and archea breathe. The rocks is a way to get energy. These unusual microorganisms known as Chemo Lippo auto troughs and they're doing this instead of oxygen because deep underground oxygen has been depleted. And they're really stuck with these lower energy reactions much akin to what would be found on early earth or the tensely other planet where. Oxygen may not exist. We're finding a lot of new species and even higher levels so Filo in things like this living deep underground to something super exciting happening all across microbiology is with DNA. Sequencing in going to these exotic places where seeing all sorts of microbes that we didn't know existed before and really our view of the tree of life is changing dramatically the micro organisms of the deep often survive in temperatures of up to sixty or seventy degrees Celsius and they leave under precious hundreds of times greater than at the surface to get around this. They often live in tiny underground bubbles of liquid some have also evolved unusual lifecycles including massive periods of Domanski. Possibly up to one thousand is major group of bacteria that we see deep underground our firm. Macoutes which are spore forming bacteria. They're often abundant in. So these spores can allow the cell to enter a dormant state for a time period which were still unsure on whether it's tens hundreds thousands of year time scales but they entered the storm at state and they can lend wake up conditions become more favourable again because it's so harsh and difficult to get to some have described this environment as a galapagos of the deep filled with unusual specialized creatures. It's also a largely untouched and unspoiled environment. So why is it important to dive down below the surface and figure out? What's there we look at this world of organisms? So very interesting question is how are they living? And how does the majority survive? It makes you question you. We had this surface centric view of life and ecosystems in those are not necessarily what the majority of organisms are end when you think about Earth history oxygen to the levels that we have today is relatively recent phenomena and so actually a lot of life began evolving in a time period that was Fria Bacteria TREES ETC and. That's a really interesting world to think about. In as we look towards the future we think about these life detection missions happening in things like Mars or Titan Europa The may be subsurface life. It's interesting to think about what do the subsurface ecosystems on earth look like can how are they surviving so that we can think about how we might go in detect life in how they may be surviving. Principal says researches from the deep carbon observatory used genetic technology to sample the genomes of the living things they encountered and by doing this they even found unique viruses living in this deep biosphere and those viruses. I'm told that they live a very different kind of lifestyle from surface. Viruses on the surface of virus infects the cell. Like when you get a sore throat or a cold. And then it forces the cells in your body to make more copies of the virus and the virus replicates but that would be a very good strategy in the deep environment where the cells are so sparse. That if you killed your host cell you wouldn't have any other cells to go to so these viruses just insert their genetic material into the cell. And then wait that thousand years or so for the cell to divide and then you have another viral genome. Because it's been replicated hits it's a crazy idea but it seems like deep viruses have a very different lifestyle as well. These are amazing discoveries and they also point to how much we don't know how much more there is to learn and you're listening to the sign show all about deep carbon presented by call Smith and it gets even more intriguing calm and I imagine as well given scientists work on extreme files these creatures that can live in. Extreme conditions have led to all sorts of breakthroughs including quite a fundamental one in the area of genetics. Gupta which allows you to essentially photocopy sections of DNA. Using a certain enzyme that was found in an extreme afoul living yellowstone national park. I imagine that might be ideas for how some of those bugs could be used in various processes appear above ground as well so every time you find new life forms you find new lifestyles new environments. It means that there must be chemicals proteins that those microbes have learned to design. That helped them survive in these extreme environments those proteins are unique chemical structures that often have technological applications as well so by discovering new microbes. We're discovering new kinds of technologies. Don't care MAGNABOSCO agrees that they're likely to be more uses for what we discovered living deep down below the surface but only once we understand how to coach them in labs on the surface and once we've looked closer at their genomes and she says they might be much more land. If we keep digging down further we have yet to find fifth Evidence of this transition when life ceases to exist there's probably some point in the subsurface where the temperature in pressure just too much that will life will cease to exist. Few different temperature ranges up. People argue that it could be but the highest temperature that we've been able to find organism. Living is one hundred twenty two degrees Celsius in so that may be the point at which light extinguishes in the subsurface there is a big drilling expedition led by the Japanese on the vessel called the Chiku where they're actually investigating this very questioned. They're going in drilling into the marine crust on the ship and then have a very very precise way of measuring cell counts and trying to find win. They stopped seeing cells. Visible Hazen says developing and testing new technology like Deepa. Sampling has been one of the most important and exciting parts of the project. One of the great successes of the Deep Carbon Vittori is inventing new kinds of scientific instruments and methods we have new analytical instruments. We have new laboratory environmental chambers. We have new drilling technologies. Allow us to recover samples and keep them at high temperature and high pressure while the recover and of course their new analytical techniques in the deep biology sphere as well there are now methods where you can take a single cell and determine its genetic makeup that was never possible before and when you're talking about deep life which is so sparsely which is so rare being able to analyze a single cell and understand. What is what it's doing how it's making. Its living is really a profound advance as I've been bringing together all the bit discoveries achievements and integrating them and communicating. Them is become very clear to me. That deep life is just an incredibly exciting area to Maria. Edmonds volcanologist from the University of Cambridge. Is the chair of the Deep Carbon Observatory Synthesis Group? Which is compiling the major breakthroughs from across the projects. One thousand odd scientists. She says that without a wide range of scientific fields coming together combining knowledge and techniques. It would have been much harder to do this kind of work. So one of the big developments has been a capsule though Lachey sample bits of sediment and fluid on the floor and deepen the sediments but that she then get them up to the ship's surface under pressure to keep them under pressure until the scientists can observe them because of course these organisms are adapted to high pressure life in high temperature life and the moment that they're exposed to office atmosphere. They die so this has been years of work. Developing these kinds of techniques. Dr Edmonds is also chair the Observatory's reservoirs and fluxes community. I'm not sure vulcanologists. I studied carbon flux from volcanoes so that communities concerned How much carbon is in the different reservoirs of earth and how it gets transferred from the different reservoirs timescales but there were also many other parts so the Observatory was spoken is in four groups. One looking at extreme forms of carbon DEEPA near thank lose the core. This group is aptly named the extreme physics and chemistry community and actually it turns out that could be as much as ninety percent of the total carbon earth is in the cool in the Hanoi in the cool. So we're we're talking the metallic center US Way Way Far Away from where we yeah. That's right and of course the core is importance it formed in very stages of our planet's differentiation. The first few hundred million years started to form but it also controls on magnetic field convection in this liquid outer core and that such turns out where most of the carbonates and this group also looked at the myriad different forms of carbon in the mantle as well. So you can exist. In solid forms. In fluid forms with oxygen without oxygen things. Like diamond diamond has been a big focus of the program turns out diamond traps tiny inclusions of the mantle that it sits in and turns out you can date the inclusions you could minerals in the money just gives you a snapshot of the. Really Deep Earth and new mineral forms of being discovered mineral forms of only existed in laboratory experiments of Sunday being found as inclusions in these documents. And that's all linked in with the other two communities depend life and they're actually quite closely linked because one of the big focuses of the program is being how to for methane Aibo Szekely without involving biology. We've been measuring Abe biotic methane on the sea floor. And it's produced by a reaction from carbon dioxide that comes from the mantle magma and the hydrogen produced by a process where water flushes through. Billy hot rocks formed mid Ocean midges and that can actually provide the fuel full of this microbial life. That's found on the sea floor. You can form things like methane and other hydrocarbons that contribute for example the petroleum you can form these deep in Earth's mantle where the temperatures and pressures would seem to completely violate any common sense. About how organic molecules these carbon based molecules that make up oil and gas but form and yet they do form and we can find that this must be a universal process on earth it perhaps explains also why we have methane bursts on Mars previously. That would have been had to be a biological source. Well now we realize it may not have to be biological so. That's an exciting discovery for deep energy. Professor Bob Hazen. So what are the tangible applications from all this work? Well aside from the living organisms. They've discovered and the new ways. Fossil fuels like methane conform. Dr Marie Edmonds points to several other areas of research. The first one I would highlight is volcanic eruption forecasting. There's been a really important set of papist. We push out monitoring systems on twenty of the world's biggest carbon outgassing volcanos. I'm one of the big results is being that actually before an eruption maybe weeks or days two months before eruption. There's a big spike in C O two flux from the volcano this is understood with the framework that Magma's coming up towards the surface. And it's actually D- gassing see too many tens of closest depth in the crust and actually. That's youtube is that migrating up to the surface ahead of the magma and this is a new result and that provides one way of potentially forecasting volcanic eruptions and another in the field of carbon dioxide sequestration. There's been a lot of work on a how microbes actually help or hinder the co two sequestration protests and be how the sequestration process works in in other words how does carbon dioxide react with bath salts to form something that's in it and could be a long term storage solution for co two on how to fluids interact with those reservoirs timescales and so on and there's a big experiment underway the D. scientists involved with in Iceland. Could COP fix which is looking at this another one. I point to is solutions to climate change. And of course there are many aspects to this where the program is relevant. One of the mist quantifying. The natural fluxes of CEO to the atmosphere and I think any IPCC model and reports they all US estimates for Co two flux into the atmosphere food tectonic regions mountain belts volcanos. I'm we've made huge progress in trying to understand that natural flux of carbon and how it might vary over geological time and what the response to it is of the atmosphere. And so I think what people don't realize. Is that the surface reservoirs incredibly dynamic balance between the outgassing flocks and the in gassing flux and that can change over geological timescales we've had really large eruptions that have lost it a million years and they've caused global warming and in the present day the seer to floxin volcanoes is about one hundred of the two flux for Mount Genyk activities and it turns out that the volcanic flux into the atmosphere is insignificant compared to the amount of carbon that were pumping into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. And I think that's really important result on its own because it shows what enormous changes were imposing on our planet. That's way beyond any natural variation in the present day. Another goal of the deep carbon observatory has been to collect collect and visualize the immense banks of data. It's researchers have been amassing including putting into perspective this movement of carbon from the deep into the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels. Doctors Sabin's here which is a post doctoral associate at the University of Sydney. And he's been working with the University of Sydney's oath by group and the deep Kaban observe a tree. They've created software that shows the movement of tectonic plates of the past millions of years as well as the movements of the churning molten rock down below importantly this software also shows how vast underground reserves of cabins cycle through this system so the software that we've developed here at the University of Sydney with colleagues at Californians Technologies called G. PLATES. It's an open source community software platform and actually the data and the models that we generate a also community open access infrastructure. So it means that people can build on our improve it and use it in their own way. For example we may focus a lot on the tectonics in the physical mental connection but there are lots of groups looking at how the arrangement of oceans and continents has actually influenced SPEC- -ation and evolution in simulation of the movement of plates magma. That led to present day Australia. He points out a section between tectonic plates. We're molten rock and gas and carbon escaped towards the surface. What we can see actually just at the present day. Australia is sitting on top of one of these regions way. There's lots of subduction. Let's sinking plates. That's why we have lots of Aquino's in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and these very narrow Kanju it's a mantle plumes and mantle plumes very important for the carbon cycle as well because they bring up huge amounts of co two when they arrived to for example the anthem mass extinction two hundred fifty one million years ago mantle plumes erupted in Siberia brought a lot of co two from a interior it also mobilized a lot of co two from buried limestone and coal and. That's actually what triggered the worst mass extinction history same. The dinosaurs went extinct. Sixty five million years ago because of the asteroid impact the just before the asteroid impact. We had a major mantle plume. Erupting India called the Deccan traps. And that these stabilize the court system already. Although we've been tracking the movement of the Earth's plates for decades the G. Plates team has been building daughter. Bat carbons movement into these simulations partly to better understand what when you move large amounts of it up to the surface. We've always focused on modeling and understanding the physical systems the plates moving around what that means earthquakes since nominees in volcanoes but only maybe in the last ten years we've had the computational power to incorporate of bias fee that we've actually started thinking about. Kaban Kaban is very important. You're too is a greenhouse gas and tectonics and this tectonic activity of Vulcan. Ism has modulated the climate cycling on earth over long periods of time the planet we know has been warmer and colder in the past. It's gone through greenhouse an ice house cycles but one of the concerns that the present day with anthropogenic. Co Two emissions is at the rate of change in terms of co two input into the atmosphere. And so that's why it's important for us to look at examples in the past. You know why did we actually have the extinctions off dinosaurs or the end permian mass extinction two hundred and fifty one million years ago where we came very close to losing the entire biosphere play. Tectonics actually can give us some clues to understand the whole climate system that way. What about looking further down below the surface had we then figure out what's going on beneath the plates? That's one of the really interesting aspects of geology is that we can use earthquakes. Although the devastating they can kill hundreds of sometimes thousands of people. The earthquakes allow US image. The Earth's interior. It's cold seismic tomography and it works very similar to a medical cat scan and so tells us exactly the distribution off hotter colder material in three D. so seismic tomography uses earthquakes which generate huge seismic wave that propagates throughout the Earth's interior and it's detected on the surface across a huge seismic network. And you can use the slight delays of arrivals to actually build a three D. picture of where the density anomalies are in the interior other than seismic tomography. We have some clues for example. We have little capsules of material that come from the deep breath onto the surface for example even diamonds diamonds seemingly stable between one hundred fifty maybe three hundred kilometers debt but they can capture minerals inside these diamonds that come to the surface and can actually study these mineral inclusions so we can use these little capsules actually reconstruct how convective system has worked over millions and billions of years. Dr Sabine Zakharevich. From the University of Sydney the importance of the Deep Carbon Observatory's work has grown over the course of the Pasta eight when it officially kicked off in two thousand nine many was still openly questioning the role of greenhouse gases like co two and methane in climate change or arguing that humanity's contribution was minimal compared to natural changes. The observatory's work has helped researches and world leaders better understand exactly how COBB and cycles through the global system and it's helped put into perspective our impact as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Professor Bob Hazen and Sorta Punch Line of all this is we certainly can identify very large deep sources of carbon. We can certainly identifying mechanisms by which carbon is taken from the surface drawn down into the depths of earth and vice versa carbon from the depths. Come back up to the surface but even the most violent and catastrophic events that we recorded. It's only a tiny trivial fraction of what humans are doing to change the carbon cycle. We are pumping carbon into the atmosphere at rates that are thousands of times greater so one of the very clear messages of research is we can't identify any natural sources that even come close to doing what human activities are doing in some ways focusing carbon gives us away to she look much bigger questions the go way beyond carbon in some ways. It's really thinking about what makes the planet habitable how all these Volatile Elements Carbon Oxygen Nitrogen Sofa so important for life giving us an environment on the surface of the planet that we can live comfortably the right temperature with the right amount of oxygen to breathe with oceans water and that will depend on this great conveyor belt of plate tectonics to mix it all up so I think carbon just gave really important focus is the obvious element really to hang all of this on so where will research on deep carbon focused next. There were very large projects now for deep life in the deep life community one basic China and one based in Germany. That's going to be funded for the next decade or so to look at these kinds of investigations of deep life and seafloor and so on. There's certainly projects now underway to look at planetary habitability to look at other volatile species. Carbon is obviously just one of the suites full salsa essential for life and for climate. The others being sulfur and phosphorus nitrogen and hydrogen oxygen. And so on so that there are many different strands. That will continue. We've only scratched the surface so much more to learn. We have hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Going forward. Won't be quite the same as the current deaprtment observatory but we're going to have a new executive committee it's populated largely by early career scientists. They'll be a office not in Washington. Dc anymore. But in Paris France the institute to Physique Du Globe so I think of this is just the beginning. The first ten years there will be a very dynamic and active community going forward for such as focused on what might be living in this deep biosphere one of the ideas that helped kick start this global project. The next step is to figure out how life found a way to not only survive but thrive in Earth's inhospitable Interior Takara MAGNABOSCO. I think a big question will be about all of these new microorganisms. That we're finding in. What exactly are they doing it? How did they originate? I'm personally interested in the evolution of deep life in devolutionary trajectories than adaptations differ from microorganisms on the surface and also with being able to know that so many microorganisms live deep underground are sort of immune to service changes. We can seek about. Globally outed microbes. Change over time. Those are the really big questions I hope that in ten years we have discovered many many new things that we didn't know we didn't know success and sciences and measured by closing books filling them up with all the knowledge and putting them on the shelves. And saying we're done with that. No that's not what science does science does is trying to understand and go explore to find new vistas and suddenly you realize there's all this new territory explore the you never even saw before. That's what science wants to do. And that's what the Deep Carbon Observatory has done. I think that's our most important scientific. Contribution the realization of how much more there is to learn that we didn't realize before that amazing report from Cal Smith. Thanks cow next week on the Sancho. Another superstar JARED DIAMOND ON UPHEAVAL. How we can cope with national crises production by? David Fisher. I'm Robin Williams.