Diverse microbial habitats on the GRIS

We are now well into planning 2017 field work so I revisited some archive footage from previous trips. The short clip below provides a good summary of the great diversity of microbial habitats that exist, even within a very small area of ice. These include cryoconite holes, a cryo-pond (the big cryoconite and water filled pool), algal blooms on the ice surface, dispersed cryoconite, streams, cryoconite ‘alluvium’ stranded on the stream banks, weathered ice  and the snowpack. The clip also shows how hummocky and non-uniform the ice surface is near the margin of the ice sheet.


To get a better idea of how these habitats are arranged spatially we also flew a small UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) with a downwards-looking HD camera. The clip below shows some of the footage. The winds were pretty strong and you can actually see the landing gear bow into shot every so often. We’ll have a more sophisticated UAV system in Greenland in 2017 that will collect images at specific wavelengths of light.

Finally, here is a short clip of the 2016 team at the S6 camp enjoying a beautiful full moon over the ice sheet. This site is well into the ‘dark zone’ where impurity loading is very high. We’ll be back there this summer to measure the effect of this on the reflectivity and therefore melt rate of the ice sheet.



November at NASA

I was lucky enough to spend November working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The purpose was to develop ongoing collaborations with expert glaciologists Johan Nilsson (who joined me in Greenland in the summer) and Alex Gardner, meet new potential collaborators and present my recent work on “bioalbedo”.


It was an extremely productive trip – being face-to-face with these top experts helped to confirm, refine and advance my current work and plans for 2017. I was lucky enough to meet researchers from the Airborne Snow Observatory and Europa Mission and got a tour around some of the labs and talk about potential collaborations.

Speaking at JPL was a huge honour and total boyhood dream-come-true as this is one of the world’s leading centres for cutting edge earth science. I spoke to the Earth Sciences division on the topic of “Bio-albedo” (the effect of microbial life on the colour of ice). The feedback and follow-up conversations were really valuable and will help stimulate some exciting science in 2017!

Title page for my JPL talk on “Bio-albedo”

It also happened to be my 30th birthday while I was out there so to celebrate, Johan, fellow researcher Aumery and I hiked up Mount Baldy before going to the cinema for some appropriately space-themed sci-fi in the evening!

Near the top of Mt Baldy – quite a contrast from shorts and t-shirt weather in Pasadena!
Obligatory summit-selfie with JPL postdocs Johan and Amaury.

So #thanksNASA for hosting me and showing me the incredible Earth and space science being done at JPL.

Iceland Fieldwork 2016

In April this year I had the pleasure or working with a group from Manchester Met and Derby Universities in Iceland. There was opportunity for some useful skills-swapping: I provided some insights into albedo measurements on the ice surface and the MMU team gave me a tour of the mysterious basal ice.

One of the field sites: Svinafellsjokul
Kvíárjökull glacier research
The field team: L-R David Elliott, Robin Sen, Simon Cook, Joseph Cook, Mario Toubes Rodrigo (ph. David Elliott)
An exposed englacial melt channel

The trip was focussed upon the team’s regular field sites – standard practice for them but refreshing new territory for me – especially since the focus was on ice that had been pushed up from the base of the glaciers (‘basal ice’).

Ice inspection
Robin explaining the properties of basal ice – with hand specimens! (ph. David Elliott)

There were several very rewarding outcomes of the trip: first, I got to see a new research group at work and observe their approach to glacier microbiological studies. Second, I had the opportunity to chat to the team at length about their experimental design – hopefully I was able to make some positive contributions as well as learning about their science. Third, I got to visit some wonderful new sites and learn about subglacial processes, including the microbiology of several basal ice ‘facies’. Finally, I got to talk to the team about some of the processes operating on the ice surface and introduce them to spectral reflectance measurements – great training for me prior to deploying these methods in Greenland later in summer.

Glacier spectroscopy
Making some spectral reflectance measurements on the ice surface (ph. David Elliott)

The team’s research is fascinating and I’m really looking forward to seeing the data and working with them more as the project develops. Mario, the team’s PhD student has been hard at work generating big datasets that should shed some light onto the dark underside of these Icelandic glaciers.

Atmospheric shot of the famous iceberg lagoon at Jokulsaron (ph. David Elliott)

Supraglacial Biogeochemistry Chapter

I recently wrote a chapter on the application of biogeochemical measurement techniques to glacier surfaces which will hopefully be of interest to students and fellow early career researchers, especially now during MSc project proposal time!

Link here

Arwyn Edwards and I applying some of the techniques described in the chapter in Greenland in 2014.
Arwyn Edwards and I applying some of the techniques described in the chapter in Greenland in 2014.

This chapter contributes to the British Society for Geomorphology’s “Geomorphological Techniques” textbook which is rapidly growing and is a fantastic resource for field scientists. Browse here.

Discover Magazine: Ecosystem Engineers on ice

In June’s Discover Magazine, science writer Elizabeth Preston explored the mysterious world of icy microbes, focussing on cryoconite. I was lucky enough to chat to Elizabeth several times and provide some photos for the article.

Cover of June's Discover Magazine
Cover of June’s Discover Magazine

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.

Cryoconite researchers on the Greenland Ice Sheet
Cryoconite researchers on the Greenland Ice Sheet

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).

Tris Irvine-Fynn and I studying cryoconite on the Greenland Ice Sheet (ph. A Edwards)
Tris Irvine-Fynn and I studying cryoconite on the Greenland Ice Sheet (ph. A Edwards)

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.

Biocryomorphic evolution on the Greenland Ice Sheet

Our new paper, “Metabolome induced biocryomorphic evolution promotes carbon fixation in Greenlandic cryoconite holes” came out this week. The main finding is that cryoconite holes can change their shape in three dimensions to maintain comfortable conditions for microbial life – an example of biocryomorphology in action. Here’s a summary of the main points:

  1. 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.
  2. Changes in hole shape are accompanied by changes in metabolic processes in microbial communities on the hole floors
  3. 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.
  4. When these equilibrium states are disturbed, the microbes become stressed, send molecular signals to each other and quickly employ metabolic survival strategies.
  5. A possible mechanism for the migration of cryoconite holes away from shade implies biocryomorphic regulation of hole floor conditions for populations of holes.
Making cryoconite hole measurements with co-author Tris Irvine-Fynn (ph. A Edwards)

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.