Glacial ecosystems

TitleGlacial ecosystems
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsHodson, A, Anesio, AM, Tranter, M, Fountain, AG, Osborn, M, Priscu, JC, Laybourn-Parry, J, Sattler, B
Book TitleEcological Monographs
KeywordsBiggie, snow ecology

There is now compelling evidence that microbially mediated reactions impart a significant effect upon the dynamics, composition, and abundance of nutrients in glacial melt water. Consequently, we must now consider ice masses as ecosystem habitats in their own right and address their diversity, functional potential, and activity as part of alpine and polar environments. Although such research is already underway, its fragmentary nature provides little basis for developing modern concepts of glacier ecology. This paper therefore provides a much-needed framework for development by reviewing the physical, biogeochemical, and microbiological characteristics of microbial habitats that have been identified within glaciers and ice sheets. Two key glacial ecosystems emerge, one inhabiting the glacier surface (the supraglacial ecosystem) and one at the ice-bed interface (the subglacial ecosystem). The supraglacial ecosystem is characterized by a diverse consortium of microbes (usually bacteria, algae, phytoflagellates, fungi, viruses and occasional rotifers, tardigrades, and diatoms) within the snowpack, supraglacial streams, and melt pools (cryoconite holes). The subglacial system is dominated by aerobic/anaerobic bacteria and most probably viruses in basal ice/till mixtures and subglacial lakes. A third, so-called englacial ecosystem is also described, but it is demonstrated that conditions within glacier ice are sufficient to make metabolic activity and its impact upon nutrient dynamics negligible at the glacier scale. Consideration of the surface and internal heat balances of the glacier show that all glacial ecosystems are sensitive to climate change, although at different timescales. Thus, while rapid, melt-driven habitat changes lead to melt-out, resuscitation, and redistribution of microorganisms in many supraglacial ecosystems, much slower climatic and glacial mass-balance processes effect such changes in the subglacial ecosystem. Paradoxically, it is shown that these forces have brought about net refreezing and the onset of cryostasis in the subglacial ecosystems of many Arctic glaciers subject to thinning in recent decades.