Progress Article | Published:

Storage and release of organic carbon from glaciers and ice sheets

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 9196 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers, which cover roughly 11% of the Earth's land surface, store organic carbon from local and distant sources and then release it to downstream environments. Climate-driven changes to glacier runoff are expected to be larger than climate impacts on other components of the hydrological cycle, and may represent an important flux of organic carbon. A compilation of published data on dissolved organic carbon from glaciers across five continents reveals that mountain and polar glaciers represent a quantitatively important store of organic carbon. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the repository of most of the roughly 6 petagrams (Pg) of organic carbon stored in glacier ice, but the annual release of glacier organic carbon is dominated by mountain glaciers in the case of dissolved organic carbon and the Greenland Ice Sheet in the case of particulate organic carbon. Climate change contributes to these fluxes: approximately 13% of the annual flux of glacier dissolved organic carbon is a result of glacier mass loss. These losses are expected to accelerate, leading to a cumulative loss of roughly 15 teragrams (Tg) of glacial dissolved organic carbon by 2050 due to climate change — equivalent to about half of the annual flux of dissolved organic carbon from the Amazon River. Thus, glaciers constitute a key link between terrestrial and aquatic carbon fluxes, and will be of increasing importance in land-to-ocean fluxes of organic carbon in glacierized regions.

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Acknowledgements

M. Sharp, B. Sattler, A. Dubnick, M. Schwikowski, D. Wagenbach and H. Hoffmann shared unpublished glacier organic carbon data. U. Federer provided TOC data from the Talos Dome ice core. K. Timm produced Fig. 1 and Box 1. M. Gooseff and R. Hood provided photos for Fig. 1. Our work in this area is supported by NSF (OIA-1208927, EAR-0943599) and the DOI Alaska Climate Science Center to E.H. and S.O., FWF START Y420-B17 to T.J.B, and NSF (DEB-1145885/1145932) to E.H., J.B.F., and R.G.M.S.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Environmental Science and Geography Program, University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau, Alaska 99801, USA

    • Eran Hood
    •  & Jason Fellman
  2. Stream Biofilm and Ecosystem Research Laboratory, School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Tom J. Battin
  3. Alaska Science Center, US Geological Survey, Anchorage, Alaska 99508, USA

    • Shad O'Neel
  4. Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306, USA

    • Robert G. M. Spencer

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Contributions

E.H., T.J.B., and R.G.M.S. conceived the study. All authors helped with compiling and analysing organic carbon and/or glaciological data and contributed to the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Eran Hood.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2331

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