Experimental evidence that microbial activity lowers the albedo of glacier surfaces: the cryoconite casserole experiment.
Thursday, 18 December 2014
Darkened glacier and ice sheet surfaces have lower albedos, absorb more solar radiation and consequently melt more rapidly. The increase in glacier surface darkening is an important positive feedback to warming global temperatures, leading to ever growing world-wide ice mass loss. Most studies focus primarily on glacial albedo darkening caused by the physical properties of snow and ice surfaces, and the deposition of dark impurities on glaciers. To date, however, the important effects of biological activity have not been included in most albedo reduction models. This study provides the first experimental evidence that microbial activity can significantly decrease the albedo of glacier surfaces. An original laboratory experiment, the cryoconite casserole, was designed to test the microbial darkening of glacier surface debris (cryoconite) under simulated Greenlandic summer conditions. It was found that minor fertilisation of the cryoconite (at nutrient concentrations typical of glacial ice melt) stimulated extensive microbial activity. Microbes intensified their organic carbon fixation and even mined phosphorous out of the glacier surface sediment. Furthermore, the microbial organic carbon production, accumulation and transformation caused the glacial debris to darken further by 17.3% reflectivity (albedo analogue). These experiments are consistent with the hypothesis that enhanced fertilisation by anthropogenic inputs results in substantial amounts of organic carbon fixation, debris darkening and ultimately to a considerable decrease in the ice albedo of glacier surfaces on global scales. The sizeable amounts of microbially produced glacier surface organic matter and nutrients can thus be a vital source of bioavailable nutrients for subglacial and downstream environments.