60-Second Earth

Ants Could Help Warming Cry Uncle

At test sites, the exposure of rock by ants accelerated the absorption of atmospheric CO2 by the rock by as much as 335 times compared with ant-free areas. David Biello reports


The meek may not just inherit the Earth, they could help keep the planet cool. The meek in this case being ants. For a quarter-century, geographer Ronald Dorn of Arizona State University and his students have studied how ants, termites and tree roots affect rock weathering. 
Rocks like plagioclase and olivine that contain calcium and magnesium naturally absorb carbon dioxide to become limestone or dolomite. The more rock that’s exposed, the more CO2 gets trapped.
And ants apparently greatly speed up that process.  At Dorn's six test sites in Arizona and Texas, eight different kinds of ants were found to accelerate the absorption of atmospheric CO2 by as much as 335 times compared with ant-free areas. The research is in the journal Geology. [Ronald I. Dorn, Ants as a powerful biotic agent of olivine and plagioclase dissolution]
Exactly how ants enhance this carbon dioxide trapping remains unclear. The activity could even be due not to the ants, but to the microbes they carry.
Regardless, there are a lot of ants on Earth, as many as 10 trillion individuals by one estimate. Dorn even speculates that the proliferation of ants some 66 million years ago might be why this recent Cenozoic era has been, until very recently, so much cooler than earlier epochs.

Aesop gave ants a reputation for being hard workers. A lot of that effort may have been for a moderate climate's benefit.

 —David Biello
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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