Microbial metabolism directly affects trace gases in (sub) polar snowpacks

J R Soc Interface. 2017 Dec;14(137):20170729. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2017.0729.


Concentrations of trace gases trapped in ice are considered to develop uniquely from direct snow/atmosphere interactions at the time of contact. This assumption relies upon limited or no biological, chemical or physical transformations occurring during transition from snow to firn to ice; a process that can take decades to complete. Here, we present the first evidence of environmental alteration due to in situ microbial metabolism of trace gases (methyl halides and dimethyl sulfide) in polar snow. We collected evidence for ongoing microbial metabolism from an Arctic and an Antarctic location during different years. Methyl iodide production in the snowpack decreased significantly after exposure to enhanced UV radiation. Our results also show large variations in the production and consumption of other methyl halides, including methyl bromide and methyl chloride, used in climate interpretations. These results suggest that this long-neglected microbial activity could constitute a potential source of error in climate history interpretations, by introducing a so far unappreciated source of bias in the quantification of atmospheric-derived trace gases trapped within the polar ice caps.

Keywords: Antarctic; Arctic; firn; methyl bromide; methyl iodide.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antarctic Regions
  • Arctic Regions
  • Atmosphere / chemistry
  • Bacteria / isolation & purification
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Hydrocarbons, Brominated / analysis
  • Hydrocarbons, Brominated / metabolism
  • Hydrocarbons, Iodinated / analysis*
  • Hydrocarbons, Iodinated / metabolism
  • Ice Cover / chemistry*
  • Ice Cover / microbiology
  • Methyl Chloride / analysis
  • Methyl Chloride / metabolism
  • Snow / chemistry
  • Snow / microbiology
  • Sulfides / analysis
  • Sulfides / metabolism


  • Hydrocarbons, Brominated
  • Hydrocarbons, Iodinated
  • Sulfides
  • methyl bromide
  • Methyl Chloride
  • methyl iodide
  • dimethyl sulfide