How climate change affects glacier-fed streams?

18 August 2021

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Vanishing Glaciers.

Climate change is causing icy streams and their glaciers to vanish at a rapid pace. However, it is not just water that is being lost. We are also in danger of losing a unique microbiome, which may hold ancient biosignatures that reveal the secrets of how microbes lived in these ecosystems millions of years ago.

Furthermore, the genetic blueprints contained therein may also be of high relevance to human health.

How are glacier-fed streams affected by climate change? What do icy streams and their glaciers have in store? Why has it become urgent to sample microbial life in glacier-fed streams around the globe?

The Vanishing Glaciers Project brings together an international team of researchers in Switzerland, USA, Saudi Arabia and Luxembourg, including Prof. Dr. Paul Wilmes and Dr. Susheel Bhanu Busi, both from the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) at the University of Luxembourg. Travelling across the globe, the team, led by Prof. Dr. Tom Battin from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), samples microbial biofilms in some of the remotest glacier-fed streams on Earth.

Exploring life at the bottom of glaciers before it’s too late

Microorganisms are the oldest, most abundant and most successful life forms on Earth. For over three billion years, microorganisms have been at the centre of major planetary cycles, surviving mass extinctions and global ice ages. In glacier-fed streams, microbial life dominates, making the most of a diversity of lifestyles and strategies to survive in some of the planet’s harshest environments, as they have done for millions of years.

As glaciers are literally vanishing around the globe at an alarming rate, we scarcely understand the impact of this global transition given our limited understanding of the life that inhabits these extreme environments.

Okjökull is Iceland’s first glacier to be lost to climate change

View over Langjökull, the second largest ice cap in Iceland and associated glaciers.

@Paul Wilmes

For Okjökull, it is already too late

The Vanishing Glaciers project aims to answer fundamental questions about the life of glacier-fed streams by operating at the crossroads of microbial ecology, biogeochemistry, glaciology and geology.

What are the functional characteristics of microorganisms in glacier-fed streams?

Glacier-fed streams are hotspots of metabolism and nutrient cycling, providing a functional link between the glacial habitat on the roof of our planet and downstream ecosystems.

@Tom Battin The project involves extensive fieldwork.
@Tom Battin The field team sampling glacier-fed streams.

Looking back in the aftermath of the last ice age and looking into the future

Sampling the unsampled across the globe, the Vanishing Glaciers Project seeks to understand what ecological strategies microorganisms have developed to survive or thrive in extreme environments. Using metagenomic sequencing and activity rate measurements, the researchers are identifying and quantifying the processes allowing microorganisms in glacier-fed streams to persist in these harsh habitats year after year.

Another part of their work is to understand what the microbial life in these streams may have looked like thousands (and more) of years ago in the aftermath of the last ice age. In the meantime, the team is looking into the future trying to make predictions of what the microbial life will look like as glaciers keep on vanishing.

Luxembourg contributing to unique genomics expertise

Within the initiative, the Vanishing Glaciers Project was developed in partnership with the research group of Professor Paul Wilmes, based in the LCSB the University of Luxembourg.

@Paul Wilmes sampling microbial mats on Bretina Island near McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

“Mountain glaciers are rapidly retreating due to climate change. Glacier shrinkage is among the greatest changes of any hydrological system on Earth beyond sea-level rise. It profoundly changes the proglacial landscape with cascading impacts on the geomorphology and hydrology of the various streams therein. Despite the extent of this environmental change, the impacts of glacier shrinkage on the ontogeny, structure and functioning of nascent stream ecosystems and the floodplains they form are relatively poorly understood at present. The Vanishing Glacier Project aims to address this essential gap in knowledge against the ticking clock of rapid global change.”

Prof. Dr. Paul Wilmes
LCSB, University of Luxembourg
Member of the Vanishing Glaciers Project

The glaciers and the respective melt waters provide unique ecological niches for different kinds of microbes including bacteria, archaea, viruses and micro-eukaryotes. To date, the group has identified several microbe-driven biogeochemical functions required for survival in these extreme ecosystems, including those that may impact the global carbon cycle. Strikingly, the team has also found many unique and previously uncharacterised functions, which are likely essential in the grand scheme of global biogeochemical cycles.

This project will make it possible to predict the impact that climate change may have on the structure and function of the biofilm microbiome and its orchestration of biogeochemistry in glacier-fed streams.

“So far, we’ve catalogued 120+ glacier-fed streams with a goal to sample 200. The work is ongoing as we have other continents to explore, in particular North America. At the end of the day, the idea is to get a global catalog of microbial life, how it adapts to extreme conditions and what goes on these glacier-fed streams.”

Dr. Susheel Bhanu Busi
Postdoc researcher at LCSB, University of Luxembourg
Member of the Vanishing Glaciers Project

The Vanishing Glaciers Project is led by Tom J. Battin at Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland and supported by the NOMIS Foundation.

The international team includes :

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