Elizabeth described how cryoconite granules form when mineral particles and other debris are “ensnared… in the sticky arms of cyanobacteria” on ice surfaces, having spoken to Prof. Nozomu Takeuchi. I spoke to Elizabeth about the accelerated melting of ice beneath patches of these granules to form cryoconite holes. Krzyztof Zawierucha provided information about the microbes that inhabit the cryoconite holes, including cyanobacteria, heterotrophic bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoans and several invertebrates.
The article then discussed the ‘biocryomorphology‘ of cryoconite, focussing upon the remarkable process of ice-sculpting to maintain comfortable conditions for microbial activity on the hole floor. Potential impacts of cryoconite as amplifiers of the ice-albedo feedback was then examined, including comments from Andy Hodson (Sheffield).
The article is recommended to anyone looking for a popular science ‘quick-read’ introduction to cryoconite – Elizabeth has presented the basics and some of the complex biotic-abiotic feedbacks in a very accessible and engaging way.
The article is available to view here or in print in June 2016 issue of Discover Magazine.
Cryoconite holes change their shape and size according to environmental conditions. A mechanism for this, driven by nonuniform arrangement of cryoconite granules or receipt of solar radiation, is presented.
Changes in hole shape are accompanied by changes in metabolic processes in microbial communities on the hole floors
Cryoconite systems tend to evolve towards wide, flat floored shapes where cryoconite granules are spread out and able to photosynthesise more. This means cryoconite holes naturally maintain conditions conducive to capturing carbon.
When these equilibrium states are disturbed, the microbes become stressed, send molecular signals to each other and quickly employ metabolic survival strategies.
A possible mechanism for the migration of cryoconite holes away from shade implies biocryomorphic regulation of hole floor conditions for populations of holes.
This paper indicates the potential for combining ice physical, biogeochemical and molecular (in this case metabolomic) analyses in gaining a mechanistic understanding of Earth’s ice as a ‘living landscape’. Another recent paper by Bagshaw et al (Cardiff Cold Climate) examining cryoconite responses to light stress at the other end of the planet is available here.
Here’s a link to Krzysztof Zawierucha’s (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan) new film about the biology of ice and snow, including cryoconite holes, snow and ice surfaces. The film clearly shows why Earth’s ice and snow represents a threatened store of biodiversity and illustrates some of the feedbacks between physical and biological processes operating in the cryosphere. See also Krzysztof’s paper in Journal of Zoology for more information about what can live in cryoconite holes specifically (and for more information on cryoconite holes, our cryoconite review).
Thanks to British Society for Geomorphology, Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, Gilchrist Educational Trust, Mount Everest Foundation, Andrew Croft Memorial Fund, Scottish Arctic Club and Gradconsult for supporting this field work. Thanks also to the GRIS15 field team: Ottavia Cavalli, Michael Sweet and Arwyn Edwards.
The team working at the field site, ca. 3 km from the margin of the SW Greenland Ice Sheet, captured using the DJI Phantom Vision 2 + drone.
Despite the mosquitoes, Greenland is a beautiful place. The rocks glisten with flecks of pyrite, the lake waters are beautifully clear, the rivers are turbid with glacial flour and as the season progresses the green land is becoming freckled with blooms of cotton flowers. We have seen Arctic foxes and reindeer. The ice is spectacular, changing colour throughout each day as the melt rate waxes and wanes. Melt pools grow and shrink, cryoconite holes deepen and shallow, supraglacial streams swell and shrink and migrate across the ice surface. The colours are whites and blues to greys and greens. It is a magical, beautiful place and we are very lucky to be working here. Today’s field work went well. We are ahead of schedule on our science goals and the data is looking good. No sign of the weather changing at the moment either, so we are putting our heads together to come up with more ideas to extend the science programme and make the very most of our time here. When we arrived back at camp to find fellow glacier researchers Marek Stibal, Karen Cameron, Jakub Zarsky and Tyler Kohler (collectively @CryoEco) at camp. It was good to catch up and find out a little about their field season over at Leverett Glacier.
Today was another productive day in relatively good weather. Another solid day’s worth of data was recorded by all members of the team. Everything ran pretty much according to plan. I had a look over the data so far and am hopeful of some good results, but it will require some deep analysis once back in the UK. I have been sleeping badly since we got here, largely due to the midnight sun and tonight was especially bad. I walked down to the river and read my book in the early hours and it felt like midday.
My initial science objectives were met today! The weather has been extremely kind to us thus far and our productivity has been higher than expected. I plan to continue to make further measurements and expand the dataset, whilst also establishing some associated extension experiments. Today was hard going though. The katabatic winds were right back up to full strength and it was bitterly cold at the site, especially once my hands had been in a few cryoconite holes! We are all starting to feel tired after a long stretch of continuous field work, but the end of the first observation period is in sight and everyone’s primary science objectives should be in the bag in the next couple of days.
Another hard day weather-wise. It is really the wind that makes things difficult and slows us down. It’s also hard work to stabilise the drone in the wind, and I doubt we will have much useful imagery from these very windy days. Thankfully, there have been enough calm days to ensure sufficient data capture, and more importantly, we haven’t lost or broken the drone! Again, I decanted samples into falcon tubes to process back at camp, and the mosquitoes made it very unpleasant. Still, it got done and as a team our minimum science aims have now been met. This is quite a weight off our minds, since data collected from here on in is largely bonus and if the weather or logistics turned against us from tomorrow onwards, we can still be assured of returning home with some science achievements and data to work up in the autumn.
We finally took a bit of a rest day today, and gained a new recruit to our camp. Leo Nathan is an MSc student at Aberystwyth University who is working under the supervision of Prof. Alun Hubbard. Leo is flying fixed-wing UAVs over long transects to generate Digital Elevation Model data of several of the rapidly melting glaciers in this region. We visited his original camp, up near Point 660, where he has been building and launching the drones. It was all very impressive stuff, and Leo was very knowledgeable and happy to talk about the project, and made a welcome addition to the team.
Today was a final day of measurements at the original field site and was relatively routine. Leo cooked dinner tonight and it was a damn fine spaghetti bolognese (although our resident Italian may disagree)!
Today we pulled our equipment out ready to change field site. This meant dismantling the loggers we had set up, collecting in pieces of equipment and markers, and generally leaving the place as pristine as we found it. This took the morning and we were off the ice just after 1pm. We had some lunch and then went to another nearby glacier to scope out possible access points for obtaining some basal ice samples. On the way we encountered a family of six musk oxen, including two very small calves. Mike and I took a walk over to another nearby glacier and watched the calving ice for a while before dinner. The sun is starting to get lower in the sky at night now, and this evening was especially beautiful down at the river. I sat there and read until it was late and eventually too cold to be out of a tent.
Today was Otti’s final day in Greenland with us. To make it a good one, we took a trip to Russell Glacier, where we watched the glacier calve. This site has changed dramatically since my last visit in 2014, having undergone some major calving and slumping. If there is some out there, I’d love to see some time lapse imagery of this piece of ice. We had some lunch and did some reconnaissance for a future research idea before walking out. Back at camp, we had a good sort out of our field kit, rearranged the tents and packed up gear that Otti would take back to the UK. We also organised the equipment that the remaining team members would need for the rest of the trip and nailed down some further research plans for the final leg of the trip. I stupidly fell asleep out in the open and woke up having been feasted upon by mosquitoes – my face looks like a sheet of bubble wrap!
Today was not a good day. We awoke as usual and ate breakfast, then piled into the truck to drive Otti to town in time for her flight. About 12 km from Kangerlussuaq we were involved in a collision with another vehicle and had to evacuate to KISS. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but there was damage to both vehicles. A police report was filed and the rest of the day was spent trying to contact relevant insurance agencies and our university contacts.
Today we necessarily stayed in KISS to try to sort out the vehicle issues. While we wait, the last of pour funds are evaporating in accommodation costs, plus food etc and we are without a vehicle to get to a field site to extend our science! We also have the additional problem that our camp is still established at the ice margin… Late in the evening two cancellations were made for tomorrow’s flight out of Kangerlussuaq, so Arwyn and I snapped them up. With Otti already home safe and sound, and Mike’s flights only two days away anyway, this was seen as the most prudent damage limitation option. An extremely kind offer of a lift out to decamp by a University of Essex research group meant we could quickly get our kit packed up in time to bail tomorrow.
It is with heavy heart and light wallet that we leave Greenland today. However, we managed to achieve our primary science aims before disaster struck, and everyone is leaving injury free. So overall, although we are a few days early retreating from Greenland, we have the data we need to produce our manuscripts as planned and have loads of images and footage for outreach and analysis. We have met some great folks and seen an incredible part of the planet, and should produce some good publications as a result. However, two secondary objectives that were scheduled for the last few days were not met: depth sampling in a crevasse and bulk sampling of cryoconite. Things could have been a whole lot worse and we are now looking forward to getting stuck into analysing and writing up our findings!
Another huge thank you to our funders British Society for Geomorphology, Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, Gilchrist Educational Trust, Mount Everest Foundation, Andrew Croft Memorial Fund, Scottish Arctic Club and Gradconsult for supporting this field work.
I also thank Professor Alun Hubbard, Leo Nathan, Johnny Ryan and the team from the University of Essex for their company and/or collaboration.
Finally, my thanks go out to the GRIS15 team: Ottavia Cavalli, Michael Sweet and Arwyn Edwards.
Thanks to British Society for Geomorphology, Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, Gilchrist Fieldwork Fund, Mount Everest Foundation, Andrew Croft Memorial Fund, Scottish Arctic Club and Gradconsult for supporting this field work. Thanks also to the GRIS15 field team: Ottavia Cavalli, Michael Sweet and Arwyn Edwards
Mike and I went to the field site alone today, as Arwyn and Otti stayed in camp and filtered seemingly endless water samples. At the site, the conditions were much calmer, much more pleasant than on previous days. I took advantage of the favourable conditions and managed to make extra measurements today. The wind was still occasionally gusty, but we managed to make three drone flights. One was slightly hair-raising and it was only luck that kept the quadcopter from bouncing inelegantly into a supraglacial stream on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, we got some nice footage of the ice surface, imaged our field site and made repeat high resolution imagery of our experimental transect.
Video showing a drone flyover of our field site
Disaster struck on the way back down from the field site though, as Mike’s crampon snapped, leaving him pin-less. Thankfully that occurred past the crevasse field and on relatively flat, solid ice so there was no major drama. On return to camp we arranged that three of us would go to the field site tomorrow, then all back to Kangerlussuaq the day after to find Mike some new crampons and restock food, gas and generator fuel. Back at camp, I made my measurements in the NEP-truck, ate dinner and Arwyn and I stayed up chatting science again, and then it was off to bed ready for a big day tomorrow.
We decided to split the team today, given that we were a pair of crampons short and navigating the crevasses pin-less seemed unwise. Of the four of us, Otti was most willing to stay at camp since she had filtering and sample prep to do that did not require visiting the field site. So Mike, Arwyn and I went up to the field site as a three, while Otti stayed behind. We made quick time getting to the site, and the conditions were perfect. The wind had finally died down, meaning we could work without constantly pinning or weighing equipment down and continually fighting to hold down sheets of paper etc. This increased our productivity hugely – I managed to record more than three times the amount of measurements today than the other days. It really was the perfect glacier field work day – bright and calm and a temperature that was comfortable to work in in just base layers, salopettes and down jackets. We capitalised on the conditions and returned with lots of data.
The walk-off was pleasant and we stopped on the way back to appreciate the surroundings. This spot is truly other-worldly – the scale of the ice sheet is quite unlike any other glacial environment and the sense of remoteness at the field site is unique. We discussed the aura of the place – the spooky noises of the winds over the rough ice and through channels and ravines, the sound of cracking ice, of moulins and streams, and the odd, beguiling light. Back at camp I spent a couple of hours taking measurements in the ‘NEP-wagon’ and revising the plans for the rest of the trip. The priority is to get replacement crampons for Mike so that the whole team is field-ready again, so we will have to sacrifice an ice day tomorrow to go back into town. This is a significant journey, so we will combine it with refuelling the truck, restocking food and maybe sneaking in a shower before a big ten day stretch of focussed work on the ice. We convened in the bigger of our tents for whiskey and debriefing before bed.
We began at the usual 06:00 am, but instead of heading to the ice we headed the opposite direction and drove all the way back to Kangerlussuaq. Half the team restocked food while Arwyn and I went to Air Greenland to refuel the truck. Everything went smoothly except for the crampons! However, thank goodness, this was remedied late in the day by the kindly staff at ‘World of Greenland’ who offered up a spare pair. There was also a bit of mucking around trying to find gas for the stove, which packed up this morning, and it ended up costing us an eye-watering £175 to buy enough gas to last the rest of the trip. That was a major blow, but at the end of the day a necessary cost to put us back in business and facilitate time on the ice. Today was an unplanned inconvenience forced by the breakage of both stove and crampons, but unavoidable and probably largely for the best as it put the whole team back in action and we are sufficiently fuelled and fed for the next ten days of uninterrupted field work.
Another day at the field site in clear but windy conditions. The cryoconite holes we are here to study have really changed since we arrived, with different groups showing distinctly different evolutionary trajectories, biogoechemistry and morphology. The diversity of cryoconite entities on the ice surface is remarkable, in their size, shape, cryoconite content, frequency and distribution. Our job here is to test whether these properties follow predictable patterns. It is becoming clear that cryoconite is not just cryoconite – actually the variables controlling the properties of cryoconite granules and cryoconite holes are numerous and interconnected across the micro, meso and macro scales. Hopefully our data will go some way towards shedding some light on these processes.
Being Saturday, Arwyn and I insisted upon adhering to an Arctic science tradition – one which originated on the ships of the great polar explorers and was introduced to us by Nick Cox at the NERC base in Ny Alesund… The tradition is formal dinner after a day in the field. So we donned shirts and ties and ate our freeze dried food rations under the British Ensign flag and made a bit of a do. Obviously it was silly given the squalid camp conditions and meagre edibles, but we had three courses – tea, freeze dried curry and a dessert of rye bread and Nutella. Mike was a good sport and humoured us through it and we took a couple of pictures to send to Nick to show him the tradition lives on! We even had a night cap of a shot of whisky and a square of chocolate and toasted the polar greats. Cheers!
Today we awoke to calm, clear conditions and therefore prioritised drone flying. We hiked in to the field site and used the drone to obtain aerial imagery for creating field maps, completed our transect study, flew some gridded flights to obtain surface images for analysis, and then spent half an hour using it to obtain footage for outreach work. This included attempting a so called ‘sky selfie’ where handheld camera footage is spliced into a gradually rising drone video, spliced into a reversed google earth zoom, creating the illusion of zooming into a cryoconite hole from space… we’ll see if it works when we get home. We also flew several flights over the field site and surrounding area for aesthetic and contextual footage. Afterwards, we nailed the day’s measurements and treated ourselves to watching a movie on Otti’s Ipod before bed.
All in all a fun day; except for one major factor. THE MOSQUITOES. The drop in the wind has allowed them to take over. It is mosquito hell. We are having to stay completely covered at all times, and even then they bite through socks and thin trousers. In theory they should die off in ten days or so, but they are making life here rather unpleasant at the moment!