So you wanna be an Arctic scientist: Part Deux

Following on from my earlier post, here are the remaining bits of questionable advice I can offer those considering a career in the cold. These are a little more introspective and a bit harder to get “right” than a first aid certificate or reading some polar history.

  1. Play well with others.

Wide open spaces. Stunning panoramas of ice and snow. Terra incognita. Polar regions often have an appeal for those of us who prefer our own company and getting away from it all.

Picture 130

Everywhere you will go, you will go with at least one other person. It’s likely you will get on each other’s nerves sooner or later.

The reality of fieldwork in the polar regions could not be more different. Unless it gets a bit Mawson you will always have other people around. Being able to “rub along” with just the same few people in trying circumstances 24/7 is really important. Similarly, being aware of your own foibles (I snore and fart at an international level – props to any tentmate of mine) is as important as being able to put up with others, so a good sense of humour and humility is vital on all fronts.


(1) Supercomfy shared bedroom in Tarfala research station, Sweden. (2) Scrubbing out the toilets in NERC station, Svalbard while wearing sandals with socks. Such a fashion faux pas is an example of the kind of antisocial behaviour that can lead to toxic group dynamics in a field station.

On this note, it’s worth bearing in mind that while fieldwork is often a land far away from normal civilized behaviour, field plans and conduct should always be utterly inclusive and each member of the team has the right to feel safe, valued and be able to contribute to their full potential irrespective of ethnicity, religion, gender or any other such factor. Everyone has a responsibility in making sure discriminatory or harassing behaviour has no place in 21st century science. It is far too common and should never be tolerated.

  1. Don’t be a tourist.

DSCN0713 DSCN4701

Tourists pay thousands of pounds to catch a glimpse of the lesser spotted Svalbard scientist through their binoculars.

Very few people working in the Polar regions go there because they don’t enjoy working there. We often fill entire memory cards with photos or videos of Yet Another Penguin/Polar Bear/Walrus/Tourist ship. And yes, it is great fun. People pay vast sums of money to see what you get to study. This should not distract you from the reality: if you’re an Arctic scientist, this is the day job. You will have worked hard to get this far and have (almost certainly) used charitable or public cash to bankroll your work. The onus is upon you to come up with the goods.

IMGP1951 IMGP1955

A good day at the office (1) Wet and shitty. Six kilograms of cryoconite bagged,  15 grams at a time (2) Same day, six hours later. View from the field toilet.

A while ago, I was discussing PhD research topics with a prospective member of my group. Impressive CV, great references and technically very capable. But it became clear that the discussion was really a negotiation about the geographic destinations the project could tick off, rather than the scientific and career development voyage that a PhD tends to entail. At that point it became clear that it wouldn’t work out. The person accepted an offer elsewhere to go somewhere at the top of their geo-ticklist, and dropped out after their second season.

If geo-ticking is your driving force and you’ve seen the same patch of ice / tundra / glacier for several field seasons, your motivation will suffer.


Dr Joseph Cook (@tothepoles). Outstanding in the field. For ten hours a day every day for eleven days he would make hundreds of measurements within a 10×10 metre patch of ice, pacing back and forth. Science in the cold demands tenacity sometimes.

If “how can I score a grant/PhD to go to Novaya Zemlya / Deception Island / Dronning Maud Land” is your starting point, your attention will not be focused on asking the best research question or doing the most rigorous or timely science. Your performance will suffer.


Kayakers in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard

If climbing that mountain over there / kayaking in the fjord / abseiling into that moulin is why you want to go somewhere, your scientific priorities will get mislaid. There is also a chance you will get embroiled in a gnarly epic somewhere far, far from home (and without benefit of “free” mountain rescue). Your field time will suffer.

If those are the things that get you out of a five-season sleeping bag at 0400h: great. Go do ‘em. But to expect a career in polar science will be a licence to do those things is as big a mistake in career planning terms as turning up at MI6 and expecting a licence to kill.

In >12 field deployments to various parts of the Arctic and Alps I have had exactly one day of being a tourist. A very nice day it was too. That is not to say I haven’t had plenty of days in which I appreciate the things I get to see and do while I do my job.


Sightseeing at Russell glacier, Greenland.  

  1. Homeward bound.

If you are successful, unless the Arctic is your home, you will spend a lot of time away from home. This will affect your life, in particular your interaction with family and friends back in the real world. It will also affect your career, which may well depend on your being away to gather data, but is progressed by the “right” papers, grants, collaborative networks, courses, teaching, administration, service and performance in the real world.

I write this having had two statistical epiphanies in the last week (‘tis the season):

  1. In the 12 months June 2014-5, my wife / statistically significant other / long haired Co-PI (same person) and I will have spent eight months apart because of our respective research and teaching commitments.
  2. In the 4 years since being appointed to faculty, I will have spent more nights sleeping rough in Scandinavian airports than on leave.

This is by no means unusual within the community of my peers. I am in awe of truly exceptional individuals such as the person who has well over a dozen Antarctic seasons to their name but has never missed Christmas with their kids. The rest of us all too often miss birthdays, anniversaries, social stuff, even entire cultural norms, not to mention things like grant or promotion deadlines. We often work 15-20h a day seven days a week to keep up with a busy academic workload which is not distributed across the usual twelve months because of field commitments. This means that literal and metaphorical fences don’t get mended.

With modern communications, you have to get really remote to be truly off-grid. I have had skype conferences with people overwintering in Antarctica, troubleshot sample archiving issues with people on the worst caravan holiday in the world by email, and have likewise fended off calls from tax inspectors, accountants and solicitors while in the High Arctic. As a PhD student I had a relationship come to an end by instant messaging while in Svalbard. The days of an annual mailbag and 200 letter-messages by Morse code are pretty much over.

This means that you are seldom truly “away” to some people and bad news from back home can reach you pretty easily when you are in no position to do something constructive about it. The consequent feeling of helplessness can be difficult. Priming key people in your life about the illusion of connection can be useful.

On a related note, while social media is a boon for outreach purposes, what goes on fieldwork does not necessarily stay on fieldwork. Enough said.

Balancing your own family’s needs with fieldwork takes careful consideration. I have known some academics take their kids (even infants) on fieldwork, while other hang up their boots for a while. Anything that works out is fine. This post provides some examples and advice from those with actual experience.

While no DNA test has ever been able to prove conclusively that I have children, I do have family at the other end of the age spectrum. Here’s my personal perspective. Try not to judge me more than I do already.

My father is himself no stranger to the world. He ran away to sea in 1947 (insert many tall, but surprisingly well-corroborated, tales here) before returning home thirteen years later at the age of thirty. As I reach the same age, I am aware I have gained just a fraction of the life and world experience he had by thirty.

From his seafaring days he has a tattoo for identification purposes. It reads “Homeward Bound”. He once told me he decided to leave the sea after sitting on a hill overlooking Bergen in Norway and grabbing a fistful of soil, realizing it was the same, but different, soil as his father nurtured on the farm at home.

By now, he lives with dementia. In 2011, not long after the loss of his wife, his condition deteriorated to the extent that I couldn’t care for him safely at home. Likewise there were only so many times I could ask friends and family to cover for me while I slipped away to teach undergraduate classes. The day after my mother died, I taught a three hour lab class. These things do not stop, just because of personal circumstances.

As the n=1 F1 (i.e. only child) these crises meant I had to abandon the project I had planned in Greenland and slot into a team on Svalbard instead. I still have the letter which stated that these events did not present a special circumstance for the research excellence framework as they apparently did not affect my research for more than 12 months. In retrospect it is clear that my professional future as a researcher depended on going away.

Nevertheless, the “easy” option for that year, a field camp in polar bear territory, is no place to grieve for the loss / “loss” of one’s parents and deal with all that the procedural aftermath of bereavement entails. Needs must though.

I recall visiting him a few days before I travelled north. Leaving him was particularly hard in those days, not just for emotional reasons, but as he was quite a savvy escape artist. The previous week he escaped by convincing a visiting priest he was just there to see an old friend. So, I gave him a big hug before beating a hasty retreat:

“So, Dad, I’m off to the Arctic again.”

“Are you? What are you doing there then?”

“Yes. Research. I’m up there for a month this time.”

“But our Attic isn’t big enough to live in for that long.”

We both laughed, and I chuckled until I got to the car, where the tears came.

As time goes by, it goes without saying that your priorities and ability to spend time away are likely to change too. It is certainly possible to balance life away and life in the “real world”, but it takes careful consideration and compromise. I don’t score well in either department, so all I’ll say is: if you want to be an Arctic scientist, always make sure you’re homeward bound.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So you wanna be an Arctic scientist?


“Ablutions were outstanding. I cannot think of a finer indicator of esteem in our field than being able to note you’ve brushed your teeth in a cryoconite hole.”

Author’s email to collaborator describing life in a field camp, August 2014

Every so often I am approached by students asking how to get into the field of cold region science in general. I’m not the best person to ask. My own introduction to the field was accidental and I still feel as if I’m “getting into it”. With the caveat that there are many people who are vastly more experienced and wise than I, here’s a summary of the advice I tend to give. It will be in two parts. This first part relates more to career and skill development. The second part is a little more introspective. Neither deal with the practicalities of fieldwork in any great detail, or the unwritten rules of “Field Club” (1. Never argue with a man wearing trousers made from a polar bear. 2….). Perhaps a post for another day?

Both parts are entirely subjective and highly prejudicial to my own experience, which is mainly of the Arctic. I will use “Arctic” and “polar” fairly interchangeably though. I expect that aspects of this advice could apply equally to other environments too.

If you disagree, or have some advice of your own you are welcome to post a comment!

  1. Don’t specialize too soon.

It is better to gain a solid grounding in marine biology / biochemistry / terrestrial ecology / geochemistry / whatever than specifically polar marine biology or Arctic biology. Most people take skills and experience they have developed in other fields and transfer it across to research questions pertinent to the Arctic or the Antarctic.

Unless employed/studying at a polar research institute, most “Arctic researchers” have fingers in other pies too. At the moment I work on projects involving deserts, pathogens, subsurface microbiology, coal mines and polar explorer poo too. If you are forced to specialize, specialize in as many different things as you can have some success in / the grownups let you do.

You will appreciate the breadth and depth of your training if you are successful in your ambition as it will give you novel perspectives on the systems you work on, but also as an insurance plan if your career plans take a different direction.

  1. Learn to write. Better.

Getting to the Arctic is a costly business. You will need to win grants and write papers. Notwithstanding Advice subheading #3, the ability to express your science in writing is as vital as your ability to mend a snowmobile at -20*C or catch barnacle geese.


Track changes: up there with crevasses and sledge dog poo in the Arctic annoyance scale.

Scientific writing is a skill which takes time to refine, so if you’re an undergraduate, this endeavour starts with the next essay you research, plan, write and reference.

For more guidance, have a look at (Arctic) microbiologist Joshua Schimel’s book Writing Science.

  1. Bring your other CV to the party.

You will be evaluated on the strength of your academic CV. Depending on the stage of your career, this will mean your grades, your degrees, your papers, your grants. These count for a lot when applying for studentships, funds or jobs. So make your academic CV as strong as possible.

Nevertheless, when it’s freezing, and snow is being driven into your numbed face, your GPS batteries just died and your fieldmate is starting to mumble, fumble and stumble, your first aid skills and above all, the ability to get a tent up and get a brew on are what counts.


Never make camp without at least two means of simultaneously making brews. The third pot is in case someone wants to make hot squash, or the devil’s juice, coffee.

There’s a whole lot of other skills that matter to an Arctic scientist. These range from cold weather camping, backcountry skiing, mountaineering (all fairly obvious) to advanced first aid, VHF or satellite communications, PADI dive certifications, RYA boating qualifications (and generally mucking around in boats), mechanics, weapons handling, mountain & crevasse rescue and ropework, Logistical planning, Working with aircraft and getting permits. This list is abridged from just one (exceptional) colleague’s CV.

These are skills which are seldom taught on any undergraduate curriculum, but many can be developed via assorted clubs and societies, or even just the plain ol’ University of Life. Make the most of any opportunities to gain them.


Boat being steered conventionally. Can also be steered with two bits of paracord if the steering column fails mid fjord.

You don’t have to be MacGuyver (yet) but an ability to solve problems (logistical, medical, scientific) with limited resources is really useful. Similarly, while being “outdoorsy” is a definite asset, for every successful scientist who can winter climb to Scottish V standard there are two that have never used crampons before. The bottom line is that being able to function in a hostile environment is often a prerequisite to get data.

This means keeping your feet warm and dry, the insides of your nostrils sunburn free and being able to make a hot brew under any conditions.


Anyone seen Tonto? Ice sheets are high glare environments and you can indeed get sunburn in unusual places, like inside your nose. I am told it is almost as painful as watching the X Factor.

Oh, and having the right bits of paper count too, especially when the logistical support people evaluate your ability to survive in the field.

  1. Respect your environment / know the system.

It goes without saying that fieldwork in the Arctic entails working in quite fragile places and it’s important to minimize your environmental impacts. But the above point has more to do with knowing your environment. If you’re a biologist focusing on the ecology of a particular shrub, it really pays dividends to know all about the heathland you’re working on. Likewise a glacier microbiologist needs to know about ice structure and glacial processes. Otherwise your work risks losing context.


Situational awareness: Be aware of the broader context of your own specific focus of research.

My advice is to learn as much as you can about the natural environment in which you’re working. Read textbooks from other fields. Attend courses. Talk to people from other disciplines: for a terrestrial or aquatic biologist, collegial links with a good geomorphologist or oceanographer respectively are worth their weight in gold. They will fill in gaps in your knowledge about your experimental system you never knew existed, and it will lead to new hypotheses. Be wary of losing sight of your own discipline though. You will add most value in being able to bring your unique skills to the table.

Knowing the history of your field and polar exploration is quite useful too. I always take a copy of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World to read about his exploits with Scott’s last expedition. It reminds me that no matter how bad my field day may be, it could be a lot worse. Although I empathise with Cherry Garrard: a very myopic youngster who accidentally found his way to the ice in his early twenties, it’s also a good reminder of the massive chasm between polar exploration in its golden era and polar science in the Iridium era.

To be continued…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


We’re still processing thousands of samples and recovering from our “cryo monster tour” or “fieldwork marathon” as others have described our summer’s projects across the Arctic and Alps. It’s won awards and for once, not just for most airline coffee consumed, excess baggage hauled or receipts filed for expenses.

Here’s a report of what we got up to, courtesy of MoBio Inc.

and a video too, courtesy of the very talented (not least as the camera didn’t break!) film-maker Sara Penrhyn Jones

It’s not over yet though. I’m gearing up to go south in December in collaboration with the Natural History Museum to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands to conduct projects funded by National Geographic and the Shackleton Fund. Time to haul more excess baggage etc…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A bear’s eye view

Our blog has been dormant for the best part of six months. That’s not because we haven’t been up to much though. In fact it’s been a very busy spell at Cryoconite Towers. We have been quietly working on samples and data from our last season on Svalbard – and preparing for this summer’s fieldwork. I thought the best way of offering a catchup is from the perspective of team member @icybear79

Who is @icybear79?

In a nutshell, icy bear is smarter than the average bear of little brain. Often thought to be Arwyn Edwards, Tris Irvine-Fynn or Sara Rassner (although they are some of “his people”), icy bear’s origins are shrouded in the mysterious north and will remain a secret as dark and chilling as a particularly filthy cryoconite hole. Icy bear first materialized at Aberystwyth as part of an exhibition on Climate Change last year.

polar bear

It seems wherever ice is in crisis, icy bear is there.

It only seemed fair to bring icy bear with us to Svalbard last year as part our NERC project on glacier ecology


To his credit, icy bear became our constant companion in the field IMGP1037 IMGP1049 IMGP1042 IMGP1005

Icy bear soon became insufferable yet inseparable while on fieldwork – pictured here with Dr Tris Irvine-Fynn and Professor Nozomu Takeuchi.

All too soon it was time for the Aber cryo team to return to the UK. It’s fair to say @icybear79 is at home in the field, but he was soon to become a telly academic in his own right


Appearing on daytime S4C…


…Outreach events…


…and scientific conferences, ranging from the International Glaciological Society’s British Branch, to the ASB Life in the Cold Workshop at Leeds, before reaching the dizzy heights of the Cambrian News


and ITV Wales, as our paper on the surprising microbial abundance of glacier surfaces was published.

But of course – remember that wherever ice is in crisis, icy bear is there. By April it was high time for icy bear to head out again (having broken our lab’s ice machine)


Icy bear first headed South. Further South than any bear had been before.




All the way south to South Island, New Zealand to help with teaching a Geography fieldcourse and looking at evidence of an outburst flood as part of a British Society of Geomorphology fieldwork grant.

As I write this, icybear79 is in Kathmandu in Nepal getting ready to head up to the Khumbu as part of a Royal Society project team looking at glaciers in the Himalaya. Hear the team’s leader, Dr. Ann Rowan, talk on BBC Radio 4 about the planned fieldwork. Icy bear (along with helper Tris Irvine-Fynn) will be looking at the hydrochemistry and maybe some microbiology while they’re there.

Tris will be taking icy bear to Arctic Canada next, where glaciers are changing rapidly, and will be working on a Climate Change Consortium of Wales project led by TrisIMGP0522_smallTris Irvine-Fynn and Arwyn Edwards  extracting a shallow ice core from a glacier. Expect more of this kind of thing!

Meanwhile, Arwyn will be heading to Svalbard for a week at UNIS. Unfortunately, they say you can never go home, and this is the case for Icy Bear too, so he’ll stay in Canada for the duration.


Instead, Tris will bring him with his ice corer to join Arwyn and Dr Joe Cook as part of another Royal Society project, this time in Greenland. Arwyn, Joe and Tris will be camping inland on the Greenland ice sheet to look at glacier ecology in some more detail. The team are joining forces with the DarkSnow collective to study interactions between microbes, melt and pollution on Greenland.  Have a read of Greenland guru Professor Jason Box’s blog about the Dark Snow 2014 project to find out more.

We (Icy Bear, Tris, Arwyn) will head straight from Greenland to join up with PhD students Ottavia & Stephen in Tarfala, in Northern Sweden as part of a EU FP7 InterAct project based there. After a few days’ respite, we then plan to head to finish off the season in the Alps.

After all of this, we may all be roundly sick of glaciers and fieldwork. But there will be no rest for the wicked, and Icy Bear won’t get any time off either. Pretty soon after all of this, Arwyn and Icy Bear will be heading to South Georgia as part of a collaboration with the Natural History Museum and National Geographic to examine its fragile glacial ecosystems.  Finally, just today we received a request for Icy Bear’s very particular skill sets in Drønning Maud Land as part of a UK-US-Swedish project involving Aberystwyth’s Professor Neil Glasser in 2015-6.

It really does look like we’ll be un-bear-ably busy….




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Frequently Asked Questions

Well, on Monday night I had great fun sharing my dirty secrets about microbes and glaciers with a lovely crew of people who turned up to the Aberystwyth Science Café.

Rather than rehash what I said, I thought it might be fun to report some of what the audience asked me at the end of the talk or at the bar. I was really humbled by the interest and pertinence of the questions, which came from a diverse and varied audience. I could recognize many eminent experts in palaeoglaciology, sedimentology, bioinformatics, mycology and botany in the audience, as well as a range of students and people just curious about all of this glacier bugs malarkey. So here’s what I could remember, as I remember it (a government health warning if there ever was!).

I’ve now edited to link to peer reviewed papers supporting my responses and fix typos.

1. Does human pollution affect glacial ecosystems?

Yes. Five kinds of pollution in particular:

Nitrogen – a single deposition event from air masses rich in anthropogenic nitrogen oxides blown up from Europe can meddle with an entire glacial ecosystems. Microbes in Arctic cryoconite no longer need to fix nitrogen for themselves, so long as deposited nitrogen from the snowpack reaches them. This has been a major change for glacial ecosystems in  since Messers Haber and Bosch radically altered our nitrogen economy.

Radionuclides – from accidents and atmospheric nuclear tests. Alpine cryoconite is the most-enriched substance beyond test sites known to science. You can detect the radionuclide signatures of particular events even.

Mercury – Microbes in High Arctic snow have to deal with mercury contamination, and their plasmid genomes reflect this.

Persistent organic pollutants. Mainly on glaciers heavily used for skiing and recreation. Some cryoconite microbes seem very capable of bioremediating these pollutants.

Antibiotics – genes for antibiotic resistance are found on many glaciers.

2. Nature always tries to find a balance. Are the microbes in glaciers collaborating, competing etc?

Yes. Cryoconite, for instance, is a collaboration between phototrophs and heterotrophs. But there’s also lots of competition and bug-eat-bug stuff going on. In particular the viruses – these are highly abundant and their tendency to kill most of the bacteria but produce very few progeny – makes for one of the biggest viral shunts of the microbial loop known. Protozoal grazers are also important.

3. Is the effect of microbes on glaciers being accounted for in models of environmental change?

Not as far as I know, and they probably should be. We have produced climate-reconstruction dependent models of glacier carbon cycles, but how ice-microbe-albedo feedbacks and carbon cycles interact with climate seem to be ignored. An exception is a paper by Jan Oerlemans’ group which suggested that supraglacial dusts induce a melting effect equivalent to an additional +2 degrees Celsius above that from warming predicted by common climate models on Alpine glaciers.

4. What happens to the cryoconite when it goes into the sea as icebergs calve?

This is one of the important questions we have yet to answer fully about how microbes on glaciers influence ecosystems “downstream” – be they terrestrial (glacier forefields), fluvial (streams) or marine. We know that in some marine systems (such as the Gulf of Alaska) that glacial organic carbon is the major source of  organic carbon flux from land to the sea, but uncertainty surrounds the origins of that carbon.

5. How active are the microbes in cryoconite?

Surprisingly so. Rates of microbial activity in cryoconite (sat at 0.1-1 degrees C) have been compared to Mediterranean soils. We still lack really comprehensive, definitive audits of the cryoconite economy as it varies through space and time though.

6.  Do they stay active if cryoconite is buried in the ice?

I don’t know. We’ve thought about this, and have some ideas from labwork about dormancy and resuscitation we’d love to test, (as an undergrad I studied in a lab which did a lot of this work) but we never made a sufficiently compelling case to be funded enough to find out in the real world.

7. The surface of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa is water ice, and it’s coloured. Is that microbial pigments?

I honestly don’t know. It’s an interesting possibility, but it’s kind of beyond my logistical capabilities to organise a field trip there. I know there are many dedicated researchers working on astrobiology, and agencies which fund cold ecology as an analogue for extraterrestrial life, but I have to admit that I find more pressing concerns closer to home: The one planet we know supports rich and biodiverse life is experiencing warming which first affects the 80% of its biosphere which is colder than your fridge, and we have yet to find all of life on Earth, as we know it.

7. What does life on mean for primary succession in glacier forelands?

It means that it probably isn’t really primary succession. See an earlier blog post of mine which covers aspects of this issue.

8. When does the bar open?

Ages ago. Mine’s a pint. Cheers!

My thanks to the 65 or so people who attended and paid attention to my absurd ramblings, and asked the questions above.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dirty Secret: (Microbial) Life and the Death of Glaciers – Aber Science Cafe

I’ll be spilling the beans about cryoconite and how the life of glaciers is surprisingly linked to microbial shenanigans at the Aberystwyth Science Café at 1930h on Monday the 11th of November at Aber Arts Centre. Plus there may be a guest appearance by @icybear79…


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A snowball’s chance in Hell et al. (2013)

Bottom line up front: Snow covers ca. 30% of Earth’s surface; we are losing the last permanently dry snows in the Northern hemisphere: Are these vast (new) microbial habitats, thanks to climate change? We published a paper which shows bacteria can proliferate rapidly in a decaying Arctic snowpack.

You would be forgiven for thinking we’re all cryoconite – obsessed swivel-eyed loons here at AberCryoconite Towers. In reality, only some of us are.  If only because we are also interested in other microbial habitats associated with glacial systems. In fact, if we can get our (numb, nitrile- gloved) hands on it, we’ll give anything icy a go. So, I’m going to summarize one of our recent papers, published by ISME Journal on the dynamics of bacteria in High Arctic supraglacial snowpacks and released to the press last week.

Slush fund

Like the cryoconite metagenome paper, this paper was born out of a collaboration with the Innsbruck Crew supported by the Society for General Microbiology’s fund for research visits in 2010. Chatting with two of Professor Birgit Sattler’s grad students, Kathi Hell and Jakub Zarsky, it appeared that some of the molecular and statistical approaches I had been developing could complement their experimental fieldwork earlier in the summer, working on Larsbreen on Svalbard.

Larsbreen (left) and Longyearbreen

Larsbreen (left) and Longyearbreen

Kathi and Jakub had visited at a one-week interval, sampling in an up-glacier transect of three stations at kilometre intervals, digging three snowpits at each station to collect snow, slush and ice cores. The second visit had seen a thin layer of aeolian dust deposited on the snow surface, so they sampled that too. While Jakub measured the activity rates of the bacterial community, Kathi filtered the samples for DNA analysis and chemistry.

So, Kathi bought DNA extracts over to the Aber lab in March 2011 to do T-RFLP and pyrosequencing. This is what we found out:

So what is the story?

1. Welcome to the layer cake?

Essentially, profiling the bacterial community revealed differences between different layers of the snow-covered glacier. We think the particular differences could only be explained by changes in the bacterial population in situ, or in other words after deposition as postulated by Xiang et al. (2009). In particular, we found slush (i.e. snow, as it melts and goes horrible, mucky, slushy crap) to harbour a distinct bacterial community. This confirms the melting snowpack as an active habitat for bacteria.

2. Betaproteobacteria: Slush puppies?

Our amplicon pyrosequencing allowed us to track the fates of different taxonomic groups in the different layers between the two sampling days. We found that the major bacterial group (class) in our samples, Betaproteobacteria, remained consistently abundant, but the organisms in the group shifted around. In particular, the genus Polaromonas proved to be a smooth player, able to duck and dive, wheel and deal in the rapidly changing environs of the slush layer.

If I had to anthropomorphize the view I have of Polaromonas following this study, they would be supraglacial Del Boy type characters, playing it nice and cool, while all the other bacteria remain oblivious, just like Trigger. Polaromonas, as a genus, crops up fairly regularly in cold environments. You would therefore expect it to be something of a “Ronseal” type bug: does what it says on the tin. But members of the genus are expert in taking on dodgy deals elsewhere too: Polaromonas napthalenivorans, for instance loves to split horrible organic pollutants straight down the middle, sixty-forty. Because of this (and other, unpublished) work we are now taking a very close look at Polaromonas.

3. Pyrosequencing- the Aristotlean connnection.

When I first examined our amplicon reads, a good fraction were “unclassified bacteria” and I didn’t know what (if anything) to make of the data. Upon re-analysis, we found that these reads were in OTUs comprising members of Chlamydomonadaceae. Specifically, the reads aligned to plastid rRNAs; thanks to our primers struggling to remain specific to bacteria we gained some bonus data. Something of an Eureka! moment ensued: the reads’ taxonomy and physical distribution were consistent with snow algae.

Snow algae in a bag

Snow algae in a bag

Classicists might complain that I’ve got the wrong Greek: after all Eureka is apparently what Archimedes shouted, not Aristotle. But that isn’t the connection I was alluding to. Aristotle, amongst other things, was the first to observe snow algal blooms. These occur as green algae, Chlamydomonas nivalis, having grown within the snowpack, produce characteristic carotenoid-rich structures which can colour the top 10-20 cm of a snowpack blood red. It’s an unlikely spectacular. The first time I saw such a bloom with my own eyes it was several weeks into a trip in the Arctic. I thought someone had laid into the stash of rhodamine to create a practical joke on an epic scale…

The significance for our study is two-fold.

Firstly, snow algal blooms are well-documented phenomena. Our pyro data reflected a nascent algal bloom. 97% id Operational Taxonomic Units, especially when automatically delineated by the hundred in high-throughput sequencing datasets can appear quite arbitrary if not totally “virtual”. As ecologists of the invisible it’s nice to get a highly visible confirmation sometimes. Cheers Aristotle!

Secondly, snow algal blooms demonstrate that snowpacks can be loci of considerable biological activity, resulting in spatially extensive phenomena which reveal themselves at brief timescales. Algal blooms are well known at sea too:

An algal bloom off the coast of England in 1999. Landsat image in the public domain (NASA)

4. Nitrogen pollution of glaciers is NO joke.

Serious chemists won’t like that subheading. Nevertheless, anthropogenic nitrogen pollution from faraway lands acts to fertilize nutrient-poor environments in the Arctic. Arctic glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet are no exception. Microbes in glacial ecosystems can respond to assimilate ammonium from even a single deposition event. Using 454, fingerprinting and qPCR methods we found specific populations of Betaproteobacteria associated with ammonia oxidation in the snowpack, and in particular on the ice surface.  We also appeared to find correlations between the bacterial community revealed by 454 and the decoupling of nutrient and non-nutrient anion dynamics in the snowpack. This would suggest microbes in the snowpack environment are tucking in to the nitrogen pollution. Our observations add to the growing body of literature on microbial interactions with the molested nitrogen cycle of glaciers to reveal a picture of an unholy trinity between microbial processes, anthropogenic nitrogen pollution and unstable climate.

What does it all mean then?

I struggled (visibly, even in the final edition) to write the paper’s discussion in a coherent fashion. Fortunately one lunchtime in the café I bumped into Aberystwyth’s Greenland guru and BBC Frozen Planet / Operation Iceberg “duderino” (his words) Dr. Alun Hubbard. He took a few minutes out of revising a manuscript to a headline journal to describe conditions high on the Greenland Ice Sheet in July 2012.  Slush was forming, and piling up, saturating the firn and running off. In just 4 days, the percentage of the Greenland ice sheet experiencing surface melting skyrocketed from ca. 40% to a maximum of 97% on the 12th of July. At that timescale, the melt is too “flashy” to let the algae get out the starting blocks. But our paper suggested the bacteria might.

Could it be that the epic melt on Greenland in 2012 triggered a massive bacterial bloom?

Greenland ice sheet probable (light pink) and confident (dark pink) melt between 8-12 July 2012. NASA image in the public domain Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory.

Who knows. From our Svalbard study we could see a heady mix of a globally ubiquitous genus of bacteria proliferating at similar timescales in similar conditions, interacting with nitrogen pollution to create a glacier-scale bacterial bloom. Plans to test this hypothesis have amounted to little thus far: 2013 saw far less melting, and attempts to reconstruct events from 2012 by looking at the firn from 2012 must take care as a bloom may not be conserved in the stratigraphy (according to our study).

What is certain though, is that we are seeing less and less dry snow in the Northern hemisphere. And where there is liquid water, there is life.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment