High Arctic Organic MAtter Cycling in Glacial Environments (HOMAGE)

Glaciers are melting due the reduction of albedo by light absorbing particulates (LAP). One major component of LAP are algae blooms and interacting microbial communities that cycle various carbon compounds. In this project we will analyse the biogeochemical processes of this communities during an annual cycle at glaciers in Svalbard.

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  • field work


  • marine biology
  • cryosphere

Project Keywords

  • cryosphere / glaciers/ice sheets / glaciers
  • cryosphere / glaciers/ice sheets / ice sheets

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Glaciers and ice sheets are the largest freshwater reservoirs on Earth and they are tightly coupled to global climate change, ocean circulation and sea level rise. Recent high melt rates and the invariable consequences for downstream ecosystems, make glaciers an important player in science and policy decision. The high rates of melting are driven by the darkening of the surface that ultimately leads to a reduction in surface albedo. This negative effect is influenced by physical, chemical, and biological parameters. Beside known LAP in the form of aerosol delivered black carbon (soot) and mineral dust, microorganisms – and specifically as we have shown through our work also pigmented snow and ice algae - have been identified as crucial contributors to albedo reduction. These microorganisms are responsible for cycling of large organic carbon quantities in the range of petagrams6. So far it is assumed that pigmented algal communities are most active in summer, since their activity is related to availability of liquid water and will increase with increased length of the melt season. Yet, little to no seasonal data are available about how the algal communities link with bacterial communities in the spring and winter snow . It is also unclear how these microbial communities together change the carbon speciation when the glacial conditions change from pure snow settings dominated by bacteria to snow algae and ultimately to bare ice algae dominated habitats. Such combined microbial diversity and organic carbon data are crucial if we want to understand and quantify the fundamental processes leading to glacier melting and derive data sets that will be implemented in global numerical climate models. Outcomes of this project together with other work from our group in various Pan –Arctic locations (Iceland, Greenland, N-Sweden) and the work of our French, British and Danish collaborators will help pinpoint the diversity and function of microbial communities and their role in organic carbon cycling on snow and ice fields in the Arctic. This proposal is part of that endeavour. We have previously surveyed many of the glaciers around Ny-Ålesund and showed that snow algae can reduce albedo by up to 13 %. We also documented that when melting starts, snow and later ice algae are the main primary photosynthetic organisms that bloom on glacier surfaces. During blooms they produce large amounts of organic matter. Yet we understand neither the processes that control the production of organic compounds nor how and if they are further degraded by heterotrophic organisms or become exported through rivers to fuel ocean productivity. We urgently need a base-line understanding of these processes in Svalbard, and hope that through this project we will contribute to a database of biomes that colonize glaciers around Ny-Ålesund. Objectives of this study: • Determination of organic carbon pools in snow and ice. • Co-analysis of microbial diversity and functional expressed genes to understand the potential of organic matter production and degradation. • Co-analysis of microbial metabolite profiles in the various pigmented algae to understand the processes that drive organic carbon cycling. The proposed study will significantly contribute to our understanding of the changes in albedo as affected by microbial communities and carbon cycling. Furthermore, our data will help us unscramble the various roles and importance of carbon compounds contributing to the darkening of glaciers. Combined with result from our other Arctic location, the data will help improve our quantification of the factors contributing to a decrease in albedo. In addition, our data will aid in quantifying if and by how much melt rates of glacier and ice masses are speeding up especially in view of changes that will invariably occur in a warming climate.

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