Have you ever played the game Two Truths and a Lie? It’s when someone tells you three things about themselves; two are true, and one is false. Your job is to spot the lie. Let’s play a version of that game about penguins. First, penguins swallow a lot of saltwater but purge it by sneezing. Second, penguins poop nitrous oxide that contributes to climate change. Third, there’s only one species of penguin in the Northern Hemisphere. Which is the lie?
Surprisingly, number three is the lie. There are 17 species of penguins, and they are all in the Southern Hemisphere. That means penguins do poop laughing gas that may contribute to climate change. Isn’t science fun? Let’s break down the research described in “Combined effects of glacial retreat and penguin activity on soil greenhouse gas fluxes on South Georgia, sub-Antarctica,” a May 2020 paper in Science of the Total Environment.
Nitrous Oxide Is No Laughing Matter
Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a chemical compound made up of nitrogen and oxygen. It is a versatile substance. It is a common ingredient in agricultural fertilizers. Nitrous oxide is used in rocket motors as an oxidizer. In motor racing, nitrous oxide makes it possible for engines to burn more fuel by providing extra oxygen during the combustion process. It’s added to cans of whipped cream and the like to help spray foods. Since the 1800s, it’s been used at parties because of its euphoria-inducing properties. Finally — and here’s where you probably know it best — it’s mixed with oxygen and inhaled as an anesthetic during medical and dental procedures as laughing gas.
What Do Penguins Have To Do With Nitrous Oxide?
Penguin colonies in Antarctica have been known to contain as many as 25,000 breeding pairs of penguins. That crowd produces a lot of guano — penguin feces. Penguin guano contains a lot of nitrogen because of the penguins’ diet of krill and fish. Nitrogen-rich guano wouldn’t itself fuel a rocket or fertilize a field, but guano changes when it hits the ground. Bacteria in the soil convert the nitrogen in that guano to N2O — laughing gas.
Researchers from the University of Copenhagen studied the environmental impact of guano-related N2O on the Antarctic island of South Georgia. Environmental impacts are a significant concern because, as explained by Professor Bo Elberling, “[Penguin guano] is truly intense — not least because nitrous oxide is 300 times more polluting than CO2.” CO2 (carbon dioxide) is a greenhouse gas that gets into the atmosphere as a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases like CO2 trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The effect of CO2 is well-known and oft-studied. The role of nitrous oxide — 300 times more polluting than CO2 — and the contribution by Antarctic penguins was the subject of the study by Elberling’s team.
The researchers believe that understanding the wide range of sources of greenhouse gases and their impacts is important, they but determined that penguin-produced laughing gas is not itself a serious threat. The University of Copenhagen’s May 2020 release stated:
While nitrous oxide emissions in this case are not enough to impact Earth’s overall energy budget, our findings contribute to new knowledge about how penguin colonies affect the environment around them, which is interesting because colonies are generally becoming more and more widespread.
Research Is Risky
Relieved as the world probably is to hear that penguin poop may not be a significant contributor to climate change, there is even more to this story. Penguin poop is indeed a significant threat. It’s a significant threat to the sobriety, concentration, focus, and poker-facedness of scientific researchers. Apparently working so deeply with penguin poop rendered the researchers just a little giddy and ill:
After nosing about in guano for several hours, one goes completely cuckoo. One begins to feel ill and get a headache. The small nitrous oxide cylinders that you see lying in and floating around Copenhagen are no match for this heavy dose, which results from a combination of nitrous oxide with hydrogen sulphide and other gases.
Isn’t science fun?! Penguin poop produces so much laughing gas that Danish researchers go cuckoo over it.
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