There’s a Surprising Amount of Life Deep Inside the Earth. Hundreds of Times More Mass than All of Humanity

A nematode (eukaryote) in a biofilm of microorganisms. This unidentified nematode (Poikilolaimus sp.) from Kopanang gold mine in South Africa, lives 1.4 km below the surface. Image courtesy of Gaetan Borgonie (Extreme Life Isyensya, Belgium).

Scientists with the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) are transforming our understanding of life deep inside the Earth, and maybe on other worlds. Their discoveries suggest that abundant life could exist in the sub-surface of other planets and moons, even where temperatures are extreme, and energy and nutrients are scarce. They’ve also discovered that all of the life hidden in the deep Earth contains hundreds of times more carbon than all of humanity, and that the deep biosphere is almost twice the volume of all Earth’s oceans.

“Existing models of the carbon cycle … are still a work in progress.” – Dr. Mark Lever, DCO Deep Life Community Steering Committee.”

The DCO is not a facility, but a group of over 1,000 scientist from 52 countries, including geologists, chemists, physicists, and biologists. They’re nearing the end of a 10-year project to investigate how the Deep Carbon Cycle affects Earth. 90 % of Earth’s carbon is inside the planet, and the DCO is our first effort to really understand it.

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Europan Space Whales Anyone? Planets Covered by Deep Oceans Can Still Have Life on Them

In recent decades, astronomers have discovered many planets that they believe are “Earth-like” in nature, meaning that they appear to be terrestrial (i.e. rocky) and orbit their stars at the right distance to support the existence of liquid water on their surfaces. Unfortunately, recent research has indicated that many of these planets may in fact be “water worlds“, where water makes up a significant proportion of the planet’s mass.
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What is Carbon Dioxide?

CO2 is more than just the stuff that comes out of smokestacks, tailpipes, cigarettes and campfires. It is also a crucial element here on planet Earth, essential to life and its processes. It is used by plants to make sugars during photosynthesis. It is emitted by all animals, as well as some plants, fungi and microorganisms, during respiration. It is used by any organism that relies either directly or indirectly on plants for food; hence, it is a major component of the Carbon Cycle. It is also a major greenhouse gas, hence why it is so closely associated with Climate Change.

Joseph Black, a Scottish chemist and physician, was the first to identify carbon dioxide in the 1750s. He did so by heating calcium carbonate (limestone) with heat and acids, the result of which was the release of a gas that was denser than normal air and did not support flame or animal life. He also observed that it could be injected into calcium hydroxide (a liquid solution of lime) to produce Calcium Carbonate. Then, in 1772, another chemist named Joseph Priestley came up with of combining CO2 and water, thus inventing soda water. He was also intrinsic in coming up with the concept of the Carbon Cycle.

Since that time, our understanding of CO2 and its importance as both a greenhouse gas and an integral part of the Carbon Cycle has grown exponentially. For example, we’ve come to understand that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 fluctuate slightly with the change of the seasons, driven primarily by seasonal plant growth in the Northern Hemisphere. Concentrations of carbon dioxide fall during the northern spring and summer as plants consume the gas, and rise during the northern autumn and winter as plants go dormant, die and decay.

Traditionally, atmospheric CO2 levels were dependent on the respirations of animals, plants and microorganisms (as well as natural phenomena like volcanoes, geothermal processes, and forest fires). However, human activity has since come to be the major mitigating factor. The use of fossil fuels has been the major producer of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. By relying increasingly on fossil fuels for transportation, heating, and manufacturing, we are threatening to offset the natural balance of CO2 in the atmosphere, water and soil, which in turn is having observable and escalating consequences for our environment. As is the process of deforestation which deprives the Earth of one it’s most important CO2 consumers and another important link in the Carbon Cycle.

As of April 2010, CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere is at a concentration of 391 parts per million (ppm) by volume. For an illustrated breakdown of CO2 emissions per capita per country, click here.

We have written many articles about Carbon Dioxide for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Carbon Cycle Diagram, and here’s an article about Greenhouse Effect.

If you’d like more info on Carbon Dioxide, check out NASA’s The Global Climate Change. And here’s a link to The Carbon Cycle.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_cycle
http://www.eoearth.org/article/carbon_dioxide
http://cdiac.ornl.gov/
http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emission/co2.html
http://www.lenntech.com/carbon-dioxide.htm
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/climate-change/science/climate-change-basics/climate-change-101-1/