Glacier-fed streams around the world are experiencing significant changes due to the ongoing process of glacier shrinkage. A team of scientists from EPFL and Faculty of Science, Charles University, Prague, conducted expeditions to major mountain ranges as part of the Vanishing Glaciers project. The researchers collected samples from 154 glacier-fed streams and found that as glaciers shrink, the volume of water originating from glaciers is declining. This has led to warmer, calmer, and clearer streams, creating a favorable environment for algae and other microorganisms to thrive.

The researchers observed a shift in the microbial composition of glacier-fed streams as a result of glacier shrinkage. With the decrease in glacial meltwater and the change in stream conditions, algae and other microorganisms are becoming more abundant. This increase in microbial life has led to a ‘green transition’ in these ecosystems, with higher levels of primary production. The changes in nutrient availability and enzyme production in the stream water and sediment indicate a significant transformation in these ecosystems.

One of the outcomes of the increase in microbial life in glacier-fed streams is a greater role in biogeochemical cycles such as CO2 fluxes. As glaciers continue to shrink and the composition of these ecosystems changes, their contribution to nutrient and carbon cycles will also evolve. Phosphorus, a critical nutrient for algae and other microorganisms, may become more limited in high-mountain streams as glaciers decline, which could have unknown impacts on downstream ecosystems and food webs.

The researchers plan to expand their study on microbial biodiversity in glacier-fed streams and explore how diverse microorganisms are able to adapt to extreme freshwater environments. By focusing on algal communities, specifically diatoms, the team aims to understand how these communities are changing in response to climate change. Tyler Kohler, lead author of the study and researcher at the Department of Ecology at Faculty of Science, Charles University, Prague, is leading further research on microbial community assembly patterns in vanishing glacier-fed streams through the “Green New World” project.

The impact of glacier shrinkage on microbial life in mountain streams is a complex and dynamic process that is reshaping these ecosystems. As glaciers continue to decline due to global warming, the environmental conditions of glacier-fed streams will continue to change, leading to shifts in nutrient availability, microbial composition, and biogeochemical cycles. Understanding these changes is crucial for predicting the future of these ecosystems and the potential consequences for downstream environments.

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