We already know that greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are a big problem for the planet. Could the solution be in our picnic baskets? No, not potato salad – ants!
Ronald Dorn, a geologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, has just completed a 25-year study on ants – specifically, how some species of ants “weather” or break down minerals and secrete calcium carbonate, better known as limestone. As part of the process, tiny particles of carbon dioxide are trapped inside the limestone, thus removing it from the atmosphere.
Dorn writes about this discovery in the current edition of the journal Geology. He began his research 25 years ago when he observed that ants broke down basalt sand. To study the long-term implications of this, he buried basalt sand at six different sites in Arizona's Catalina Mountains and in Texas' Palo Duro Canyon. Every five years, he measured the degradation of the minerals olivine and plagioclase and discovered the ants broke them down up to 300 times faster than nature.
How the limestone is then formed with the carbon dioxide trapped inside is still undetermined. It’s either created when the ants lick the sand to stick it to the walls of their nests or it’s made somehow inside the ants and excreted. As Dorn puts it:
We don't know if they are licking it or pooping it, or if it's bacteria in the ant's gut or the fungi growing in the colonies.
Can we slow climate change by being nice to ants? Dorn hasn’t yet determined how much carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere by the ants. However, their process is similar to the natural carbon sequestration that trees and the ocean use to remove and trap carbon dioxide and it’s far less expensive (and probably much safer) than artificial carbon sequestration projects that manually pump carbon dioxide into storage wells deep underground.
I think we should give Dorn’s process a chance in appreciation for his perseverance in watching ants poop for 25 years.