Biological processes on glacier and ice sheet surfaces

Glaciers and ice sheets are melting in response to climate warming. Whereas the physical behaviour of glaciers has been studied intensively, the biological processes associated with glaciers and ice sheets have received less attention. Nevertheless, field observations and laboratory experiments suggest that biological processes that occur on the surface of glaciers and ice sheets — collectively termed supraglacial environments — can affect the physical behaviour of glaciers by changing surface reflectivity. Furthermore, supraglacial cyanobacteria and algae capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into organic matter. Supraglacial microbes break down this material, together with organic matter transported from further afield, and generate carbon dioxide that is released back into the atmosphere. The balance between these two processes will determine whether a glacier is a net sink or source of carbon dioxide. In general, ice sheet interiors seem to function as sinks, whereas ice sheet edges and small glaciers act as a source. Meltwaters flush microbially modified organic matter and pollutants out of the glacier, with potential consequences for downstream ecosystems. We conclude that microbes living on glaciers and ice sheets are an integral part of both the glacial environment and the Earth’s ecosystem.

Details

Publication status:
Published
Author(s):
Authors: Stibal, Marek, Šabacká, Marie, Žárský, Jakub

Date:
18 December, 2012
Journal/Source:
Nature Geoscience / 5
Page(s):
771-774
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
https://doi.org/10.1038/NGEO1611