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Humble Ants May be Key to Sequestering Carbon Dioxide and Curbing Global Warming

First Posted: Jul 17, 2014 07:02 AM EDT
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Could ants be a way to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? That just might be the case. Scientists have taken a closer look at these insects, and have watched as they break down calcium-magnesium silicate. As they break it down, the process causes minerals to absorb CO2, revealing a potential new way for carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration is the process of storing carbon or CO2 in order to prevent it from entering our atmosphere. In theory, this helps prevent the greenhouse gas from being such a large driver of global warming.

This 25-year-long study is actually the first quantitative measurement of in situ calcium-magnesium silicate mineral dissolution by ants, termites, tree roots, and bare ground. The real powerhouse out of all of these organisms, though, is the humble ant. Scientists found that ants were one of the most powerful biological agents of mineral decay yet observed. The gradual dissolution of calcium and magnesium bearing silicates leads to the drawdown of CO2 through accumulation of limestone and dolomite.

In fact, ants could potentially enhance abiotic rates of Ca-Mg dissolution by two orders of magnitude. In addition, future research leading to the isolation of ant-based enhancement process could lead to further acceleration. If ant-based enhancement could reach 100 times or greater, this process might be able to geo-engineer sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere. Not only that, but ants could provide clues on geoengineering efficient pathways of calcium carbonate precipitation to sequester atmospheric CO2.

Ants have actually increased in the world, and they could be partly responsible for the puzzle of the Cenozoic cooling. The fact that these insects can be such large drivers of climate means that it may be possible to employ them to create a better way to sequester CO2.

The findings are published in the journal Geology.

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