Shhh! Don’t wake the microbes – they could create carbon bombs

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Disturbing ancient carbon stores buried deep in coastal ecosystems can trigger the release of destructive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

This shocking article could be used with year 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 students to demonstrate new discoveries in science. It would be particularly suited to Earth and Space, Biological and Chemical sciences when studying the carbon cycle, greenhouse gases and ecosystems.

Word Count: 421

Disturbances to coastal ecosystems results in blue carbon being released back into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.

Coastal ecosystems are more fragile than previously thought, say Australian researchers.

These ecosystems, which are more effective than trees at capturing carbon,  could in fact contribute to global warming if the ‘blue‘ carbon that’s been long stored away in mudflats and wetlands is disturbed.

Release of carbon disastrous for the environment

Peter Macreadie, lead researcher and head of Deakin University’s Blue Carbon Lab, says the new research showed environmental disturbances such as dredging, wetland drainage and major storms that expose coastal sediments to oxygen could activate long dormant microbes that release blue carbon.

“This would be a disastrous outcome for the environment,” Macreadie says.

“We know blue carbon ecosystems are carbon sinks: that is, they store carbon. But, we didn’t know what happened if the really old carbon was disturbed. We now have the data to demonstrate how unstable it really is.”

Blue carbon is the carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems, which when protected or restored can offset carbon emissions and fight climate change. But Macreadie says that when degraded or destroyed, these ecosystems emit carbon back into the atmosphere and oceans as carbon dioxidemethane, or nitrous oxide, becoming a source of greenhouse gas.

Ancient ecosystems are like carbon bombs

For their research, which is published in Science of the Total Environment, Macreadie and his team took blue carbon stores of around 5,000 years old that had been retired from the carbon cycle and locked away by seagrass meadows.

A sample of the blue carbon. Credit: Donna Squire, Deakin University.

“We exposed this carbon to oxygen, which is something that happens a lot in the coastal zone due to coastal development, such as through dredging or through the impact of climate change, including storms and rising temperatures,” Macreadie says.

“What happened really surprised us. We thought this ancient blue carbon would be indestructible, like eating rocks.

“But we discovered the oxygen woke up microbes that attacked the ancient carbon and turned it into the greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change. This study tells us that although carbon sinks are a great asset for fighting climate change, they can also be a great liability.

“These ancient ecosystems are like carbon bombs. When coastal development and climate change lights the fuse, tiny little microbes – invisible to the naked eye – become the gatekeepers of the carbon cycle, releasing the carbon into the atmosphere.

“We now know the development of blue carbon ecosystems needs to factor in the risk of greenhouse gas emissions and the significant impact on the environment and look at ways to potentially off-set this through better environmental management.”

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Years: 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10


Biological Sciences – Ecosystems, Lifecycles

Chemical Sciences – Chemical Reactions, Atoms

Earth and Space Sciences – Renewable/Non-Renewable Resources, Rocks, Extreme Earth Events, The Changing Earth

Additional: Careers, Technology, Engineering.

Concepts (South Australia):

Biological Sciences – Interdependence and Ecosystems

Chemical Sciences – Change of Matter

Earth and Space Sciences – The Earth’s Surface


4 & 6-10