An Icy Summer's Retreat

Geographical, November 2009 | Go to article overview

An Icy Summer's Retreat


* A 'FRIGID ZONE' may not sound like the liveliest place to pass the summer, but for glaciologist Andy Hodson, who spent his in High Arctic Svalbard studying glaciers at differing stages of retreat, it's one of the most dynamic environments on the planet.

A specialist in glacier ecology from the University of Sheffield, Andy received the Society's Peter Fleming Award this year to continue his investigations into the existence of micro-organisms on glaciers, some ten trillion of which are released annually when the ice thaws.

Conducted with a multi-disciplinary team of scientists from the UK, Norway and Russia, Andy's research is the first to examine glacial melt as a combined physical and biological phenomenon. Demonstrating that these vast expanses of frozen water are actually thriving ecosystems in their own right, his work has revealed that the microbes that colonise glaciers may actually be heightening the processes that cause them to melt. Trapping wind-blown particles and other debris that would otherwise be washed away, the organisms form patches called 'cryoconite', which darken the ice surface and allow more of the sun's energy to be absorbed.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Andy and the team were able to incubate microbes on the surface of the ice, employing modern DNA methods and microscopy to study how cryoconite forms and directly observing why it persists upon the ice by influencing its surrounding habitat. 'We were amazed by the extent of biological colonisation upon these glaciers,' he says. 'We found active cryoconite patches everywhere we looked. Their darkening of the ice has been enough to increase the absorption of solar radiation by more than 30 per cent across broad areas.'

Even in this mild season, late snow cover on the ice made crossing the glaciers more treacherous than usual. …

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