As I sat sipping my beer and watched its tiny bubbles rise in my glass, Jeffrey G. Catalano, PhD was giving his talk entitled, “Wetlands, Heavy Metals and Climate Change”. This was another round of Science on Tap, a monthly event where science meets brew. Climate change is attributed to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Primary among them is carbon dioxide, but there are other gases that contribute to this effect, notably methane. Both gases occur naturally and are also manmade. Incidentally, cow farts are considered to be manmade, since cows are raised by men. Catalano’s talk concerned changes in naturally occurring sources that are being caused by man. The largest source of naturally occurring methane are wetlands, think swamp gas.
Most microbes like people breathe oxygen to live, but wetland soil has an environment almost devoid of oxygen. Through a chemical process that I won’t detail here, some microbes can live there and they exhale methane. Key to this process are heavy metals, think nickel and not Metallica. These heavy metal compounds act as catalysts. We are not that different. What a chemist calls catalysts we call vitamins. At the heart of one of our key vitamins (B¹²) is cobalt. Without them not much happens, but if you add some then things begin to happen. One of the questions that Catalano is wrestling with is what are the effects of pollution runoff into wetlands? Does this increase the production of methane? Another question is what will be the effects on methane production, if rising global temperatures melt Canada’s and Russia’s permafrost, since most of the taiga there is now frozen wetlands. He didn’t offer any answers to these questions, but he does plan on continuing his study of them.