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It is well known that variation in the concentrations of electro-active chemical compounds in surface waters, soils and sediments affects organisms. Scientists now propose that variations in the atmospheric electricity can influence the electrochemical environments with implications that are likely relevant for a wide range of organisms and ecosystem processes. Their research results are published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Physiology.

Atmospheric electricity is the study of electrical charges in the atmosphere. Copyright: Michael Wilson.

Atmospheric electricity

Despite the breadth of understanding of processes governing the Earth’s subsurface electrochemical environment and the consequences for organisms, a comprehensive understanding is still lacking as currently known drivers often fail to explain all observed electrochemical variations. The newly published study proposes that atmospheric electric fields resulting from charge separations between the atmosphere and the Earth are a currently overlooked driver of the chemistry and microbiological processes in subsurface environments.

Dr Harm van der Geest, researcher at the UvA Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, was one of the researchers involved in the study: ‘We used a combination of field observations and laboratory experiments to demonstrate that both local and global variation in atmospheric electricity corresponds to variations subsurface redox conditions, and that bacterial processes are causally linked to changes in atmospheric cation concentrations. While the data fails to capture the relevant scales and wide array of potential chemicals involved, they provide the first clue on the existence of the proposed link.’

Conceptual diagram depicting the proposed link between atmospheric electricity (AE), Earth surface electrochemistry and microbial processes (Source: https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00378).

Future research

This first observation of a coupling between atmospheric electricity and biogeochemistry is likely relevant to a wide range of organisms, in particular those with electrotactic behaviour such as many microbial and nematode species. It presents many unknowns that call for pursuing diverse research avenues in the future as persisting knowledge gaps impede a conclusive understanding of the causal relationships between atmospheric electricity and Earth’s electrical environment. First author Ellard Hunting, former PhD candidate of IBED and now working at the University of Bristol: ‘Challenges for future research include elucidating the relevant scales, how these links directly or indirectly govern distinct groups of organisms, and how this interaction is mediated or altered by vegetation and pollution.’

Publication details

Ellard R. Hunting, R. Giles Harrison, Andreas Bruder, Peter M. van Bodegom, Harm G. van der Geest, Andries A. Kampfraath, Michel Vorenhout, Wim Admiraal, Casper Cusell and Mark O. Gessner (2019). Atmospheric Electricity Influencing Biogeochemical Processes in Soils and Sediments. Frontiers in Physiology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00378

Contact information

dr. H.G. (Harm) van der Geest

Assistant Professor of Benthic Ecology