Arctic glaciers are melting — but the microscopic fungi they leave in their wake could be the key to new life

A melting glacier in Svalbard, Norway

Roughly 10% of the Earth’s land surface is covered by glacial ice, making the melting of these surfaces especially worrisome in the face of climate change. 

And they’re melting at an alarming rate

This contributes heavily to rising sea levels, which increases coastal erosion, and can lead to more frequent and life-threatening storms like hurricanes and typhoons. Combine this with warming air and ocean temperatures, and it’s not just the polar bears that face an unsettling future.

While studying this component of the climate crisis doesn’t exactly solve the issue, it does help experts better understand how the planet will respond and adapt to climate change.

A man with messy brown hair and a brown beard smiles in Norway. He wears a red parka and a black knit winter headband
Dr. James Bradley. Photo courtesy of James Bradley/The Bradley Lab

Dr. James Bradley, an expert in Arctic Biogeochemistry at the School of Biological and Behavioral Sciences at Queen Mary University of London, embarked on a study with his research team to better understand the Arctic's rapidly changing landscapes.

As glaciers retreat due to global warming, they expose new landscapes and microorganisms that have lain dormant for thousands of years, covered in sheets of ice. These teeny-tiny lifeforms “colonize” the rock exposed in the ice-melting process to collect nutrients for their survival.

In turn, this forms new soils and ecosystems.

Dr. Bradley’s team set out to explore the formation of these new soils and ecosystems, traveling to Svalbard (a group of islands between the North Pole and Norway’s northern coast, well above the Arctic Circle). 

A person walks a barren, snow-covered area in Svalbard, Norway
Photo courtesy of James Bradley/The Bradley Lab

According to Inside Climate News, this area is the northernmost settlement in the world and has been called “a canary in the coal mine of climate change,” as it is warming more than two times faster than any other areas of the Arctic — and five to seven times faster than the rest of the planet.

If there’s a place to understand how melting glaciers impact Planet Earth, Svalbard is it.

The research team spent most of their time studying the Midtre Lovénbreen glacier valley, which Bradley had first studied in 2013.

“A decade ago I was walking on top of the ice and drilling ice cores into the glacier,” he said in a statement for the university. “When we returned in 2021, the glacier had shrunk and instead of ice there were barren, seemingly lifeless soils.”

Melting ice in Svalbard, Norway
Photo courtesy of James Bradley/The Bradley Lab

His team analyzed barren landscapes that offer virtually no support to any form of life. Below-freezing temperatures, rocky terrain, and a lack of sunlight during winter don’t exactly make for a successful community garden, for instance.

But underneath a layer of dark, cold night are microorganisms like bacteria and fungi that have the power to create new life — and capture carbon. 

The research team — which was made up of scientists from Germany, Switzerland, and the United States — gathered soil samples from the area and brought them back to the laboratory. 

They discovered that each sample contained incredibly diverse communities of microbes, and published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“These are some of the most pristine, delicate, and vulnerable ecosystems on the planet, and they are rapidly colonized by specialized microbes, even though they are subject to extremes in temperature, light, water and nutrient availability,” Dr. Bradley explained.

A man leans over a body of water, collecting a sample for scientific research. He is wearing black work pants, a gray sweatshirt, a yellow baseball cap, and blue gloves.s
Photo courtesy of James Bradley/The Bradley Lab

Investigating the composition of the soils using DNA analysis and measuring the cycle of carbon and nitrogen flowing through it, the researchers concluded that microscopic fungi found in the Arctic provides fertile ground for new life.

“We found that these specialized fungi are not only able to colonize the harsh Arctic landscapes before any other more complex life,” Dr. Bradley said, “but that they also provide a foothold for soil to develop by building up a base of organic carbon which other life can use.”

Fungi is known to be well situated to store carbon in soil, compared to bacteria. The ratio of fungi to bacteria is key, as more fungi mean more carbon sequestration in the soil, while bacteria generally leads to more carbon emissions.

“In high Arctic ecosystems, the variety of fungi is particularly high compared to that of plants, which increases the likelihood that fungal communities could play a key role there as ecosystem engineers,” explained one of the study’s author’s Professor William Orsi, from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany.

Two researchers collect soil samples from a glacier valley in Norway
Photo courtesy of James Bradley/The Bradley Lab

Essentially, these researchers — who braved the barren cold, unpredictable wildlife, and dangerous conditions of the Arctic — have concluded that these fungal populations hold the key to making more accurate predictions about our vital Arctic ecosystems.

Indeed, they found the earliest indicators that the fungi left behind by melting glaciers might just be the building blocks to new life on a warm planet — or at least, the carbon keepers of the future.

“Our results demonstrate that fungi will play a critical role in future carbon storage in Arctic soils,” Professor Orsi summarized, “as glaciers shrink further and more of Earth's surface area is covered by soil.”

Header image courtesy of James Bradley/The Bradley Lab

Article Details

July 3, 2024 11:10 AM
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