The Heat Is Online

Winter Fungi Growth Could Speed Carbon Release

Active Fungus May Affect Global Warming, Sept. 5, 2003

Tiny fungi that live under the Rocky Mountain snowpack get busy reproducing in the winter and may affect global warming, U.S. scientists said yesterday.

They said they found a winter wonderland of fungal species, including many new to science, under the snow of a high-altitude Colorado meadow.

Unlike most life, which hibernates or hunkers down in the winter, these fungi proliferate - creating measurable amounts of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, the researchers said.

This could affect global warming - caused to a large degree by both natural and human-made carbon dioxide.

"This is important because these microbes may increase the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and could change estimates of carbon fluctuation on Earth," said Steve Schmidt of the University of Colorado, who led the study.

Schmidt's team, along with David Lipson of San Diego State University, checked out the populations of bacteria and fungi in the meadow during different seasons.

To their surprise, the fungi populations grew and completely dominated the bacteria in the winter, when the snow was the deepest.

This could have implications for the global climate, because about 40 percent of Earth's land surface is covered by snow during the winter.

"The amount of microbial activity is probably very high in places like Canada, Alaska and Siberia that have enormous amounts of snow pack over large areas for extended periods," Schmidt said in a statement.

"The presence of previously unknown, higher order lineages of fungi in tundra soils suggests that the cold, snow-covered soils may be an underappreciated repository of biological diversity," the researchers wrote.