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Hundreds of thousands of tons of potentially harmful microbes could escape melting glaciers, say Aber researchers

18 Nov 2022 3 minute read
Aberystwyth University researchers on an ice sheet in Greenland

Over one hundred thousand tonnes of potentially harmful microbes could escape from melting glaciers, scientists at a Welsh university have warned.

Scientists from Aberystwyth University examined surface meltwaters from eight glaciers across Europe and North America, and two sites in western Greenland. They estimate that even with only moderate warming, these microbes will be released to downstream ecosystems.

Assuming a climate scenario where there is a moderate rise in carbon emissions, the study predicts that more than a hundred thousand tonnes of microbes will be released into the wider environment.

That would be equivalent to an average of 0.65 million tonnes per year of cellular carbon, which includes microbes, being delivered into rivers, lakes, fjords and oceans across the northern hemisphere over the next 80 years.

Dr Tristram Irvine-Fynn from Aberystwyth University commented: “Melting glacier ice surfaces host active microbial communities that contribute to melting and biogeochemical cycling, and nourish downstream ecosystems; but these communities remain poorly understood.

“Over the coming decades, the forecast ‘peak water’ from Earth’s mountain glaciers means we need to improve our understanding of the state and fate of ecosystems on the surface of glaciers.

“With a better grasp of that picture, we could better predict the effects of climate change on glacial surfaces and catchment biogeochemistry.”

‘Harmful’

Estimates suggest that Earth’s glaciers have been losing around a trillion tonnes of ice per year since the early 1990s, mainly driven by further melting of their surfaces.

Scientists believe the impact of further glacial melting, including the discharge of microbes into downstream environments, may be significant.

Dr Arwyn Edwards from Aberystwyth University added: “These important findings build on much of our previous research here in Aberystwyth. The number of microbes released depends closely on how quickly the glaciers melt, and therefore how much we continue to warm the planet.

“But the mass of microbes released is vast even with moderate warming. While these microbes fertilize downstream environments, some of them might be harmful as well.”

The Aberystwyth academics’ findings were published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment this month.

The study was led by former Aberystwyth PhD student and associate lecturer, Dr Ian Stevens, who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University.

Dr Stevens is working on the Deep Purple project and examining the physical and microbial processes which accelerate melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.


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Richard 1
Richard 1
12 days ago

How does this differ from what has been happening all along? It is becoming more rapid but is that a problem? (we have enough problems and no I’m not M Gove)

hdavies15
hdavies15
12 days ago
Reply to  Richard 1

“….potentially harmful microbes could escape..” Key words are “potentially” and “could”. Yet another scary prediction from academics looking for something to validate their existence. If they are looking for proven harmful microbes they should check out their own workplaces and habitats. They would be surprised by what they find but the real scientists among them would tell them that the human body is remarkably good at adapting to and resisting such threats.

Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
12 days ago
Reply to  Richard 1

Can we really ever have “enough” problems that we can choose to stop trying to solve them though?
It kinda doesn’t matter if things are “scary”. They will happen anyway or they won’t. The scientists use the word “could” because unlike politics they are obligated to be honest. “Could” in science has a specific meaning, just like the word “theory”. “Could” is a degree of certainty, lower than “will”.
Ultimately their job is not to manage our response, or to wrap up facts in a message of hope. It is to report their hypotheses, methodologies and findings

Frank
Frank
12 days ago

Man has no chance of fighting the forces of nature. Ice ages and warm periods are what the planet goes through naturally and has been happening since the creation.

Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
12 days ago
Reply to  Frank

Sure, but not quite as fast as we have managed to engineer this time. Strikes me as sensible to see what microbial life is locked in the ice. Some might be dangerous but some might be useful. What if they find one that just loves eating plastic? That could be amazing in helping clean up our mess.

Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
12 days ago
Reply to  Peter Cuthbert

Given that plastic did not exist when they froze, and that evolution simply means adjusting to the environment, via natural selection it seems unlikely that any species would evolve a liking for something which did not exist. Saying that, scientists HAVE been trying to create such microbes in the lab by artificially creating an environment where eating plastic would be a beneficial trait. I don’t think they’ve succeeded yet though.

Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
Y Tywysog Lloegr a Moscow
12 days ago
Reply to  Frank

It’re really not worth repeating the same facts in order to try and convince climate change deniers. But I’ll try. Warming / cooling cycles are normal yes. Volcanic activity and solar activity have significant impact yes. But human activity on top of a natural warming period has put current temperatures significantly higher (in survivability terms) than the natural warming period would alone. It’s just a degree or two, but it is not far from the tipping point which could drive the world into a sequential biological collapse, leaving behind just some resilient extremophile species. This is true and is all… Read more »

Frank
Frank
12 days ago

Research has discovered that Earth life may have achieved far more superior achievements before the last ice age than we have today. Don’t forget the planet is millions of years old and things will have evolved and existed in a completely different way than we know it today. After an ice age of tens of thousands of years we will probably emerge once more as savages and start all over again. We know absolutely nothing but some think they do!

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