What You Need to Know About Microbes and Climate Change

The unseen microbes in our environment are being impacted by climate change. Scientists have collectively released a call to action.


, or microorganisms, are single-celled life forms that live everywhere. They inhabit our atmosphere, every imaginable type of environment, and can be found wherever life exists. When we think about bacteria or unseen microbes of any kind, we might immediately assume that these microbes are harmful or dangerous. While some are, in fact, harmful to us, a vast majority play a critical role when it comes to regulating Earth’s  and combating the negative effects of . Certain microbes recycle nutrients, break down organic matter, and assist with photosynthesis, all of which are necessary processes to keep Earth healthy.  

Apart from the visible impacts of climate change seen in the rising global temperatures, melting ice sheets, and rising sea levels, scientists are now speaking out about more elusive damages that are taking place in our environment. A consensus statement authored by over 30 professional scientists in the field was released earlier this month detailing how the microbes on Earth are being impacted negatively by climate change, even though we cannot see this harm with our own eyes. 

How Climate Change is Impacting Microbes 

The detailed consensus report covers several categories of microorganisms, as well as how balance is determined by certain microbes – especially when it comes to oceanic climates and habitats. Victoria Orphan, a microbial ecologist who helped author the report, spoke with the Los Angeles Times in detail about their scientific findings and concerns. 

Nearly half of the plants responsible for producing the oxygen we breathe on Earth actually live in the ocean. Ocean plants assist with extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. According to Orphan, our oceans are like “a sink for carbon dioxide.”  

Methane is another greenhouse gas that our oceans help to regulate. It is estimated that groups of microorganisms consume upwards of 80% of the methane contained in ocean sediments before having the chance to reach the atmosphere. In order for the environment to properly cycle methane, two different types of microbes must work in collaboration and operate together as one ecosystem. When sea habitats are disturbed through human practices, such as mining for deep-sea resources, these systems can become less effective at filtering over time. 

How Microbes React to Climate Change 

Not all microbes that naturally exist on our planet are beneficial. There are certain microbes in the atmosphere that release harmful emissions, regardless of whether or not climate change is occurring. These naturally existing emissions are made worse by climate change and can even contribute to its acceleration as the planet continues to warm 

Nitrous oxide is one of the main greenhouse gases that is released into our atmosphere through agricultural fertilizers. Scientists expect that nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from soil and plant life will only increase as global temperatures continue to rise 

Apart from the microbes that exist in soil, there are other microbes in our environment that have an impact on climate change. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is produced by cows, goats, and sheep in order to help them break down and digest their food. Over the course of the last several years, methane levels in the atmosphere have increased substantially. 

A Call to Action 

In the conclusion of the consensus statement, in addition to sentiments made by scientists directly involved with microbe and climate change research, it is clear that this warning about microbes and climate change is really a call to action. Apart from the visible damage we have seen from climate change already, scientists are now saying that the unseen microbes in our atmosphere are being affected negatively as well.  

The scientists behind the report collectively agree that more emphasis on microbes is needed, with specific regard to how microbial function is evolving in the wake of climate change. The statement also calls for “explicit consideration of microorganisms for the development of policy and management decisions,” and even makes mention of the importance of microbiology study in schools and on college campuses. 

In order for humankind to reverse the negative effects of climate change and create a sustainable environment for future generations, we need to start paying attention to how all life forms on Earth are being affected. Even when we cannot see the damage with our own eyes, it does not mean that it does not exist. 






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