By: April Carson
As glaciers melt rapidly, they release high levels of bacteria into nearby rivers and streams, potentially changing these ecosystems, scientists say.
In a study of glacial runoff, researchers across the Northern Hemisphere have estimated that if global warming continues at its current rate, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of bacteria could be released into environments downstream of receding glaciers within the next 80 years.
The bacteria released can be both beneficial and harmful, with some having the potential to cause serious human health problems. Understanding the makeup of these bacteria is therefore essential for determining their impact on ecosystems and humans downstream.
According to Arwyn Edwards, a microbiologist and author of the study from Aberystwyth University in the UK, people often think of glaciers as "a huge store of frozen water." However, he says that what they don't realize is that glaciers are also ecosystems.
This means that they can contain a wide variety of bacteria and other microorganisms, which are released when the ice melts.
Glaciers are accumulations of ice that slowly slide toward the ocean over long periods of time, sometimes millions of years. They carve out valleys as they go and can be found in mountain ranges. However, glaciers are more than just frozen water -they also contain minerals, gases, and organic materials that become trapped on their journey.
Due to global warming, glaciers are melting at an alarming rate. This causes the release of unknown bacteria, which could have a detrimental effect on our environment.
By studying glaciers, we are able to open a door to another time in history. Furthermore, microbes found inside them have the potential to unlock new and useful compounds - such as antibiotics. However, researchers say that melting glaciers are releasing large numbers of bacteria faster than scientists can catalog them all.
This could lead to a host of unknown and potentially harmful bacteria being unleashed into the environment, threatening our health and safety.
A team of glacial hydrologists, led by Ian Stevens of Aarhus University in Denmark, sampled surface meltwater from ten glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere. The locations included: the European Alps, Greenland, Svalbard, and the far reaches of the Canadian Arctic. They then compared the DNA of these bacteria to a database of known bacterial species.
They found that on average there are tens of thousands of microbes in each milliliter of water. They estimate that more than a hundred thousand tonnes of bacteria could be expelled into glacial meltwaters over the next 80 years, not including the glaciers in the Himalaya Hindu Kush region of Asia.
The majority of bacteria identified belong to some of the most common and widespread bacterial families, but there were also novel species that had not been previously known to scientists.
If we don't act now to reduce emissions, that's equivalent to 650,000 tonnes of carbon being released each year into waterways across the Northern Hemisphere. It all depends on how quickly glaciers melt and how soon we take measures to reduce pollution.
In an emissions scenario where global temperatures would still rise by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, the researchers found that masses of bacteria in meltwater are predicted to peak within decades before declining or potentially disappearing entirely as glaciers recede. Understanding the species and their potential contribution to global climate change is essential for scientists in order to develop effective strategies for managing the release of these bacteria into water sources.
Edwards said, "As we continue to warm the planet and cause glaciers to melt at a quicker rate, the number of microbes let out increases. Even with moderate warming, though, the amount of released microorganisms is large."
Scientists discovered earlier this year that the Arctic ice is melting quicker than they originally predicted. Other research has shown that some glaciers have already reached a tipping point where the amount of meltwater has slowed down significantly as glacial runoff gradually reduces.
Although microbes in meltwater can downstream ecosystems, these catchments may be home to communities who rely on glacial runoff for water.
The researchers didn't study specific strains of bacteria, but only estimated their biomass in order to prevent any sort of threat to human health. Surprisingly, they couldn't identify whether microbes were active or not.
Edwards stated that though the risk is most likely very minute, it requires a meticulous evaluation.
If we don't continue our studies, we won't understand how the sudden growth of microbes could contribute to additional environmental change. Scientists believe it might have a deep influence on the efficiency and variety of microbial groups, as well as basic chemical processes.
The research team concluded that, even though the risk of an unknown pathogenic infection is low, it's still fundamental to have a better understanding of these processes and their implications. This could help us eventually adapt our strategies for climate protection and glacier conservation.
Not only that, but bacteria and algae contain pigments to protect themselves from the harmful effects of sunlight. However, these same pigments end up absorbing solar energy and adding to the warming which is thawing glaciers at an accelerated rate. It's essential to understand the different microbial groups and their functions in order to better gauge the effects of climate change on our environment.
In the next few decades, we need to become more knowledgeable about ecosystems located on glaciers. This is because many mountain glaciers are predicted to 'peak water' soon, according to glaciologist and study author Tristram Irvine-Fynn at Aberystwyth University.
This could lead to the release of unknown bacteria due to melting ice, and impact ecological systems that have existed for centuries. In addition, research suggests that these unknown bacteria will play an integral role in climate change feedback loops.
The study was published in Nature Climate Change and is one of the first to highlight the impact of glacier melting on microbial ecology.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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