Glacier ecosystems

This page on glacier ecosystems and life on ice was contributed by Dr Arwyn Edwards, a Lecturer in Biology at Aberystwyth University.

The secret life of glaciers | Life happens under the ice | Life happens in the ice | Life happens on the ice | Summary | About the author | References | Comments |

The secret life of glaciers

Glacier ecosystems

Aristotle was the first to observe life in snow as a snow algal bloom. These occur as algae produce reddish-pink blooms (“watermelon snow”) as seen in this sample of Svalbard snow. The reddish-pink pigments are a microbial sunscreen, protecting the algae from UV radiation. Photo credit: Dr Arwyn Edwards

Where there is water, there is life. Glaciers are no exception. Research over the last thirty years supports the idea that we should rethink glacier ecosystems1. Indeed, since glaciers and ice-sheets lock up most of Earth’s freshwater, it could be argued that glaciers and ice-sheets are Earth’s largest freshwater ecosystems2 and that they form a distinct biome3. However, with the notable exception of Glaciers & Glaciation4, the textbook view is that life starts after the glaciers are gone. Let’s fix that by taking a look at the secret life of glaciers.

Life happens under the ice

The study of subglacial ecosystems is very topical for several reasons.  Firstly, the search for life in Antarctica’s subglacial lakes has attracted substantial media attention, including media reports of novel microbes and microbial activity in Lakes Vostok and Whillans. Secondly, organic carbon trapped under the ice can be metabolized by microbes to form methane5, a potent greenhouse gas. Calculations suggest up to 21,000 petagrams of organic carbon (10 times the permafrost carbon stock) might be trapped under Antarctica’s ice and that microbial conversion of this carbon to methane could be a major feedback in climate change6. Thirdly, subglacial microbes seem to act as a “geochemical probiotic” by accelerating mineral weathering up to eight-fold7. Finally, recent work suggests moss plants can survive for centuries underneath glaciers, recolonizing the land as the ice retreats8.

glacier ecosystems

Subglacial ecosystems: life between a rock and a hard place. The author and collaborator Prof. Birgit Sattler sampling under Gaisbergferner in the Austrian Alps. Note protective bobble hat. Photo credit: Dr Tristram Irvine-Fynn

Life happens in the ice. Slowly.

Life in ice is definitely stuck in the slow lane, but it does not grind to a halt. Temperatures far below zero do not present an absolute obstacle to microbial activity9,10, and three habitats have been suggested for microbes trapped in glacial ice.

Life inside the bergschrund of an Alpine glacier is dark, cold and very little organic matter to consume. Microbes can live on the surface of debris entrained in ice, or in solid ice. The discovery of viable photosynthezising microbes inside this glacier recently featured in an episode of BBC TV’s Horizon. Photo credit: Dr Arwyn Edwards

Glacier ecosystems: Life inside the bergschrund of an Alpine glacier is dark, cold and very little organic matter to consume. Microbes can live on the surface of debris entrained in ice, or in solid ice. The discovery of viable photosynthezising microbes inside this glacier recently featured in an episode of BBC TV’s Horizon. Photo credit: Dr Arwyn Edwards

The first en-glacial habitat is for rock-eating microbes living in thin films of water on the surface of debris entrained in the ice11, while other microbes can swim in the network of veins that form between individual ice crystals12. Finally, it’s thought that microbes can live inside solid ice crystals deep in ice-sheets13. To do so, microbes would have to survive by consuming and producing gases such as carbon dioxide or methane which small enough to diffuse through the ice at rates of a few thousand carbon atoms a year. Analyses of ice cores suggest metabolising gases in this way could explain some anomalies in greenhouse gas concentrations14 in ice core records.

Life happens on the ice

Glacier surfaces get plenty of sunlight, liquid water and direct contact with the atmosphere during summer, so life here is easy – some of the time. It could be said the story of life on the ice begins with making a single snowflake as some ice-nucleating bacteria can catalyze ice precipitation15. Moreover, as we are seeing the last of the dry, cold snow in the Northern hemisphere disappear at the peak of summer16, the potential for a massive bacterial bloom becomes apparent as microbes thrive in melting snowpacks. Microbes living at the interface between ice and the atmosphere are also important for the mass balance of glaciers as “biological darkening”17 by ice algae18 and aggregates of microbes bound to minerals called cryoconite19 accelerate surface melting rates. Finally, in summer, conditions can be gentle enough for some plants and animals to thrive on the ice surface, for example mosses (“glacier mice”20) or ice worms, thus increasing the complexity of the icy food chain. The photographs below show cryoconite holes on an Arctic glacier after a “rain kill”. The rest of the ice surface has ablated, melting out the cryoconite holes and making them even more obvious than usual.

The image below shows all the different ways microbes can live on glaciers!

Biodiverse microbes live in different habitats on the ice surface. Photo courtesy of Dr Nozomu Takeuchi

Biodiverse microbes live in different habitats on the ice surface. Photo courtesy of Dr Nozomu Takeuchi

Summary

In summary, it ought to be clear that glaciers and ice-sheets are not sterile landscapes but rather comprise several biodiverse habitats. Glacier ecosystems occur on the ice, in the ice and under the ice. We are starting to learn how these life forms interact with their icy homes and the consequences for both glaciers and climate. So perhaps it’s time to rewrite some of those textbooks.

Most life in glacial environments is invisible. Microscopic view of glacial meltwater stained with a dye that fluoresces green when bound to DNA. The bigger bugs are bacteria, while the tiny pin-pricks of light are viruses which infect those bacteria. Photo: Dr Arwyn Edwards

Most life in glacial environments is invisible. Microscopic view of glacial meltwater stained with a dye that fluoresces green when bound to DNA. The bigger bugs are bacteria, while the tiny pin-pricks of light are viruses which infect those bacteria. Photo: Dr Arwyn Edwards

About the author

Arwyb Edwards

Dr Arwyn Edwards

@arwynedwards is a Lecturer in Biology at Aberystwyth University. He is at his happiest using DNA fingerprinting and sequencing to learn about the microbial life of glaciers and ice-sheets. See Arwyn’s personal webpage for more information.

Further reading

Go to top or jump to Glacial Geology.

References


1.            Kohshima, S. A novel cold-tolerant insect found in a Himalayan glacier. NATURE 310, 222-227 (1984).

2.            Hodson, A.J., Anesio, A.M., Tranter, M., Fountain, A.G., Osborn, A.M., Priscu, J., Laybourn-Parry, J. & Sattler, B. Glacial ecosystems. Ecological Monographs 78, 41-67 (2008).

3.            Anesio, A.M. & Laybourn-Parry, J. Glaciers and ice sheets as a biome. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (2012).

4.            Benn, D.I. & Evans, D.J.A. Glaciers & Glaciation, (Hodder Education, UK, 2010).

5.            Boyd, E.S., Skidmore, M., Mitchell, A.C., Bakermans, C. & Peters, J.W. Methanogenesis in subglacial sediments. Environmental Microbiology Reports 2, 685-692 (2010).

6.            Wadham, J.L., Arndt, S., Tulaczyk, S., Stibal, M., Tranter, M., Telling, J., Lis, G.P., Lawson, E., Ridgwell, A., Dubnick, A., Sharp, M.J., Anesio, A.M. & Butler, C.E.H. Potential methane reservoirs beneath Antarctica. Nature 488, 633-637 (2012).

7.            Montross, S.N., Skidmore, M., Tranter, M., Kivimäki, A.-L. & Parkes, R.J. A microbial driver of chemical weathering in glaciated systems. Geology 41, 215-218 (2013).

8.            La Farge, C., Williams, K.H. & England, J.H. Regeneration of Little Ice Age bryophytes emerging from a polar glacier with implications of totipotency in extreme environments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2013).

9.            Junge, K., Eicken, H., Swanson, B.D. & Deming, J.W. Bacterial incorporation of leucine into protein down to-20 degrees C with evidence for potential activity in sub-eutectic saline ice formations. Cryobiology 52, 417-429 (2006).

10.          Bakermans, C. & Skidmore, M. Microbial respiration in ice at subzero temperatures (−4°C to −33°C). Environmental Microbiology Reports 3, 774-782 (2011).

11.          Tung, H.C., Price, P.B., Bramall, N.E. & Vrdoljak, G. Microorganisms metabolizing on clay 10 grains in 3-km-deep Greenland basal ice. Astrobiology, 69-86 (2006).

12.          Price, P.B. A habitat for psychrophiles in deep, Antarctic ice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 97, 1247-1251 (2000).

13.          Rohde, R.A. & Price, P.B. Diffusion-controlled metabolism for long-term survival of single isolated microorganisms trapped within ice crystals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 16592-16597 (2007).

14.          Rohde, R.A., Price, P.B., Bay, R.C. & Bramall, N.E. In situ microbial metabolism as a cause of gas anomalies in ice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2008).

15.          Christner, B.C., Morris, C.E., Foreman, C.M., Cai, R. & Sands, D.C. Ubiquity of Biological Ice Nucleators in Snowfall. Science 319, 1214 (2008).

16.          Nghiem, S.V., Hall, D.K., Mote, T.L., Tedesco, M., Albert, M.R., Keegan, K., Shuman, C.A., DiGirolamo, N.E. & Neumann, G. The extreme melt across the Greenland ice sheet in 2012. Geophysical Research Letters 39(2012).

17.          Irvine-Fynn, T.D.L., Edwards, A., Newton, S., Langford, H., Rassner, S.M., Telling, J., Anesio, A.M. & Hodson, A.J. Microbial cell budgets of an Arctic glacier surface quantified using flow cytometry. Environmental Microbiology 14, 2998-3012 (2012).

18.          Yallop, M.L., Anesio, A.M., Perkins, R.G., Cook, J., Telling, J., Fagan, D., MacFarlane, J., Stibal, M., Barker, G., Bellas, C., Hodson, A., Tranter, M., Wadham, J. & Roberts, N.W. Photophysiology and albedo-changing potential of the ice algal community on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet. ISME J (2012).

19.          Edwards, A., Anesio, A.M., Rassner, S.M., Sattler, B., Hubbard, B., Perkins, W.T., Young, M. & Griffith, G.W. Possible interactions between bacterial diversity, microbial activity and supraglacial hydrology of cryoconite holes in Svalbard. The ISME Journal 5, 150-160 (2011).

20.          Porter, P.R., Evans, A.J., Hodson, A.J., Lowe, A.T. & Crabtree, M.D. Sediment-moss interactions on a temperate glacier: Falljokull, Iceland. Annals of Glaciology 48, 25-31 (2008)

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3 thoughts on “Glacier ecosystems

  1. In my field areas of the Pacific Northwest of North America, Ice worms are at the top of the food chain that lives in the glacier, though rosy finches love to eat them. They are not particularly photogenic but number in the billions on even moderate size glaciers. Two videos give a sense of this, one is the slow less then riveting motion and the other an overview. Details on our more than two decades of field research on them at
    http://www.nichols.edu/departments/glacier/iceworm.htm
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64LchrL_AJM
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tr1wOl2SF0

    • Dear Mauri,
      Thanks for the ballad of the iceworm! It’s very interesting how iceworms (M. solifugus) are found only in a particular geographic area. They are very sensitive to temperature changes and thus if we lose those glaciers they will be at considerable risk.

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