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Cryo microbiology

The Greenland Ice Sheet is the second largest ice sheet in the world, spanning over 1,700,000 km2. As global temperatures are rising due to climate change, Greenland Ice Sheet melt is rapidly accelerating. On August 1, 2019, the Greenland Ice Sheet experienced a record melt, causing the loss of an estimated 12.5 billion tons of ice in a single day. The melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet has far-reaching consequences for, amongst others, sea level rise, ecosystems and the global climate.

Given the widespread impacts of Greenland Ice Sheet melt, the Cryo-Microbiology Group at the Department of Environmental Science aims to increase the understanding of microbiology in the cryosphere (i.e., the frozen part of the Earth system), as well as the mechanisms through which it affects the Greenland inland ice and thus the rest of the planet. The cryosphere was long believed to be a sterile environment, but has become widely recognized as one of the Earth’s biomes in recent years. Active algae, fungi, bacteria and viruses dominate cold environments and have the ability to change the physical and chemical characteristics of the ice and snow.

For instance, algae growing in large quantities on the surface of glaciers can darken the ice, causing an increase in ice melt rates. Methane producing microbes are also active in the dark and anoxic habitats under the ice, and can add substantial amounts of methane to the global greenhouse gas budget. Many of the microbiological processes within the cryosphere remain poorly quantified, but such processes are relevant to researchers interested in the possibility of life in icy extraterrestrial bodies, the survival and proliferation of life forms on our early Earth (e.g. during the part of the Proterozoic era known as Snowball Earth), and the positive and negative feedbacks that the cryosphere may have on global warming.  The microbial communities living in association with icy environments may also harbor unique metabolic pathways and provide novel opportunities in biotechnology.

More information about some of our research projects can be found at the top right of this page. Three members of the Cryo-Microbiology Group joined a research team for fieldwork in East Greenland in July 2019, about which they collectively wrote several blog posts. They were joined by two journalists working for the Guardian, who wrote articles about our research (here) and the mental health of the Greenlandic population in light of the climate crisis (here).