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The role of microbes in snowmelt and radiative forcing on an Alaskan icefield


A lack of liquid water limits life on glaciers worldwide but specialized microbes still colonize these environments. These microbes reduce surface albedo, which, in turn, could lead to warming and enhanced glacier melt. Here we present results from a replicated, controlled field experiment to quantify the impact of microbes on snowmelt in red-snow communities. Addition of nitrogen–phosphorous–potassium fertilizer increased alga cell counts nearly fourfold, to levels similar to nitrogen–phosphorus-enriched lakes; water alone increased counts by half. The manipulated alga abundance explained a third of the observed variability in snowmelt. Using a normalized-difference spectral index we estimated alga abundance from satellite imagery and calculated microbial contribution to snowmelt on an icefield of 1,900 km2. The red-snow area extended over about 700 km2, and in this area we determined that microbial communities were responsible for 17% of the total snowmelt there. Our results support hypotheses that snow-dwelling microbes increase glacier melt directly in a bio-geophysical feedback by lowering albedo and indirectly by exposing low-albedo glacier ice. Radiative forcing due to perennial populations of microbes may match that of non-living particulates at high latitudes. Their contribution to climate warming is likely to grow with increased melt and nutrient input.

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Figure 1: Appearance of red snow coincides with melt predictors on Eklutna Glacier, 2014.
Figure 2: Alga abundance increased by nutrient and water addition, decreased by HOCl addition with manipulated alga abundance determining snowmelt rate.
Figure 3: Spectral reflectance varies by particle abundance and source.
Figure 4: Microbes drive snowmelt on a large Alaskan icefield.


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C. McNeil, T. Tumulo, A. Meyerhofer, K. Loan, J. Geck, T. Golden and C. Tobin assisted, and D. Kurtz and the National Park Service permitted the research. NASA Alaska Space Grant funded G.Q.G. and R.J.D.; National Institute for Water Resources funded R.J.D. and M.G.L.; Anchorage Municipal Light and Power and Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility funded M.G.L.

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R.J.D. conceived and coordinated the project. G.Q.G. and R.J.D. designed ecology studies. G.Q.G. and M.G.L. performed glaciology. A.B.B., G.Q.G. and R.J.D. performed spectrometry. G.Q.G. and R.J.D. performed remote sensing. G.Q.G., M.G.L., and R.J.D. performed fieldwork. G.Q.G. performed laboratory counts. G.Q.G. and R.J.D. performed statistical modelling. R.J.D. wrote the paper with input from all.

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Correspondence to Roman J. Dial.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Ganey, G., Loso, M., Burgess, A. et al. The role of microbes in snowmelt and radiative forcing on an Alaskan icefield. Nature Geosci 10, 754–759 (2017).

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