Calling Carbon Cycle Experts

December 24th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

We’d welcome an explanation of the possible (or non) significance of this new paper in Science for understandings of the global carbon cycle. A news story contained the following interesting paragraph (italics added):

Scientists say the discovery could bear on estimates of the pervasiveness of exotic microbial life, which some experts suspect forms a hidden biosphere extending miles underground whose total mass may exceed that of all surface life.

10 Responses to “Calling Carbon Cycle Experts”

  1. Charlie (Colorado) Says:

    I’m no expert on carbon cycles, but it sounds like another bit of suuport for Gold’s “deep hot biosphere”.

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  3. Arnost Says:

    Thomas Gold (may he rest in peace) always deserves to be taken seriously. He had other ideas that were at first considered “heretical”, but over time were shown to have substance. As Charlie points out, it may be that another of his heretical ideas will soon become mainstream…

    Conventional wisdom has it that oil and coal are remnants of ancient surface life that became buried and subjected to extremes of temperature and pressure. Gold maintained that these deposits are not fossil fuels in the normal sense, but the products of primordial hydrocarbons dating from the time of the Earth’s formation – the core of Gold’s thesis is these substances are formed from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

    He also proposed that in the depths of the Earth’s crust was a second realm of life, a “deep hot biosphere” in which archaic bacteria thrived in temperatures well above 90 degrees Celsius, living off methane and other hydrocarbons six to 10 km down.

    This theory was launched in a 1992 paper in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” and expanded in his 1998 book “The Deep Hot Biosphere”.

    As an interesting aside, he said that “I’d submitted it to ‘Nature’ in 1988, but they wouldn’t publish it,”…

    The following paper of Gold’s is a very interesting assessment of the role of peer review system in science, and how, as a consequence of the “herd” instinct it can fail.

    Roger, thank you for running this most civilised of blogs, and thanks to all the contributors that make it so interesting to read. Merry Christmas all.

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  5. Mike Hughes Says:

    I seem to remember that Tommy Gold spent a lot of time and money drilling deep into a meteor crater somewhere in Norway without finding the hydrocarbons he was looking for.

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  7. Nordic Says:

    I don’t think anyone knows the significance right now. This is not the only recent paper to show how little we know about carbon cycles and the soil.

    This one is also significant:

    There was another paper published in the last year or so that showed that the standard method for determining the amount of organic carbon was completely missing another previously unknown form of carbon, but I can’t locate that one right now (I only really notice soils articles because my wife works with soils – I generally forward them on to her after a quick read)

    Here is an article on nitrogen cycles which makes the same point – we just don’t understand very well what is going on under our feet. :

    As an aside, I am trained as a forest pathologist, and our understanding of root diseases is woefully poor – it is hard to study processes that are occuring underground.

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  9. Nordic Says:

    The other article I was thinking of was about Glomalin. This form of soil carbon was first noticed in 1996, so not as recently as I thought.

    This heading from the linked article ought to warm the hearts of the Idsos: “Rising CO2 Boosts Glomalin, Too”

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  11. Jim Clarke Says:

    I strongly urge all readers of this blog to follow the link provided by Arnost in his first post. In the link, Thomas Gold does not talk specifically about climate change, but he has nailed the evolution of climate change science. In the following argument, he provides an example of what happens when there is a spread of opinions in a field given the current way we do science:

    “Suppose you have some curve between the extreme of this opinion and the extreme of that opinion. You have some indefinite, statistically quite insignificant distribution of opinions. Now in that situation, suppose that the refereeing procedure has to decide where to put money in research, which papers to publish, and so on. What would happen? Well, people would say, “We can’t really tell, but surely we shouldn’t take anybody who is out here. Slightly more people believe in this position than in any other, so we will select our speakers at the next conference from this position on the opinion curve, and we will judge to whom to give research funds,” because the referees themselves will of course be included in great numbers in some such curve. “We will select some region there to supply the funds.”

    And so, a year later what will have happened? You will have combed out some of the people who were out there, and you will have put more people into this region. Each round of decision making has the consequence of essentially taking the initial curve and multiplying it by itself.

    Now we understand the mathematical consequence of taking a shallow curve and multiplying it by itself a large number of times. What happens? …If you go for long enough, you will have created the appearance of unanimity. It will look as if you have solved the problem because all agree, and of course you have got absolutely nothing.”

    The entire article is full of insights about the evolution of science and science policy in today’s world.

    Thank you, Arnost!

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  13. Oliver Says:

    I thought about this a bit when i was doing a with Gold for Wired, and came to the conclusion that the size of the deep biosphere was not what mattered — what mattered was its activity. The surface biosphere, stuff which benefits from the flow of energy through plants, is very active. The deep subsurface bisophere, far more constrained in its energy sources, is not. These are microbes that might take decades to reproduce. So though biomass might be very large, impact is in all likelihood very small.

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Oliver- Thanks. My intuition is exactly the same as yours. But it seems that it would be worthwhile for scientists to understand the fluxes between surface/deep and the deep processes themselves. Whenever my (inexpert) intuition about such things suggest that something-or-other has little impact I try to remember that this sort of thinking delayed the discovery of the ozone hole ;-)

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  17. Francis Massen Says:

    I fully agree with Jim Clarke: Dr. Gold’s article could have been written yesterday, and has not taken one wrinkle with age: this should be mandatory reading in science classes! Arnost, re-thanks for providing the link!

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  19. bruce Says:

    Thomas Kuhn addresses the issues related to the advancement of science in “The Structure of Scientific Revolution”. It is very hard for new ideas to get past the widespread “paradigms” that become accepted wisdom.

    At the risk of exposing myself to charges of being a “loony”, my own readings suggest that we will see in coming years (or decades) major changes in the way we see currently accepted views on major issues.

    1. Big Bang Hypothesis: Eric J Lerner, in “The Big Bang Never Happened” reports on work debunking the Big Bang hypothesis that I find compelling, and advances the alternative theories of Harold Arp and Alfven.

    2. Expanding Earth Hypothesis: Professor W S Carey (a major supporter of Plate Tectonics in his early career) developed a detailed explanation of the Expanding Earth Hypothesis which has been addressed by numerous other workers. Carey and others have been pilloried by the subductionists, but again, if you were to read his work, his arguments are compelling.

    3. Oil Genesis Theories: Comprehensive and detailed work in Russia before the collapse of the USSR has effectively demonstrated that the biogenic theories of oil genesis have never been proven scientifically, and support the alternative theories advanced by Gold. These include a deep source for hydrocarbons that are worked on by bacteria close to the surface of the earth to generate the oil and gas pools that we see.

    4. Hydridic Earth: Carey’s work (and that of Thomas Gold) are supported by very interesting work, again out of Russia, including Vladimir Larin’s “Hydridic Earth” that argues that earth was once a gas giant, much like Jupiter is now, with a deep hydrogen atmosphere. The core is saturated with hydrogen as a result. Under great pressure and hydrogen saturation, the iron core undergoes a phase change to a more dense phase that has SG of 7.21 to around 30. With the hydrogen atmosphere abladed away, the restraining pressure is released. The core slowly releases H2, with some of the iron returning to SG 7.21. This provides the mechanism for expanding earth. The expansion process results in rifts that pass all the way to the surface. Hydrogen released from the inner core passes towards the surface, but reacts with the carborundum (Silicon carbide) to generate CH4 (methane) and SiH4 (silane). These materials migrate towards surface up the rifts, and react with various components of the earths crust as they advance, creating oil and gas pools (in the case of CH4) and silicates, granites etc in the case of SiH4 plus water. According to these theories, CO2 is also produced.

    This theory provides an elegant explanation for the expanding earth. It is further addressed by C W Hunt, E A Skobelin and L G Collins in “Expanding Geospheres”.

    Much of the above is accepted in the former USSR, but derided in the west as hokum. No doubt we will see in due course.