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  • Writer's pictureJags Pandhal

A dying glacier, so what happens to the microbes?

By Luke Richardson


Field Season 2023 has wrapped up, with two successful visits to glaciers in the Swiss Alps.

A June trip with Rory White yielded 70 samples from a transect along Rhonegletscher and a September follow up has yielded 30 more from Rhone and Oberaargletscher. Longitudinal sampling can tell us how the denizens of the ice surface fare as the year passes. Drone surveys were performed of the ice surface, producing maps accurate down below five centimetres.

Rhonegletscher in particular is on the frontline of climate change. The famous Ice Grotto that has been carved into the flanks of the glacier since 1870 is on its last legs: blankets are vainly applied to the disappearing ice mass to slow its retreat, but only a few years are left. The glacier is experiencing a new and worrying phenomenon, collapse. Warm meltwater is hollowing out the inside of the glacier and it is collapsing like a crumbling dome. The source of the mighty river Rhone is in decline, and current projections suggest that this glacier will be lucky to see the next century. The organisms that call the glacier home are vital contributors to the quality of the river rhone, not to mention that their habitat is literally melting away and they will soon be gone for good.

Top left: Taking some time over lunch to date and archive samples.

Top right: The collapse feature, having collapsed. September 2023

Middle: The rhone collapse feature, June 2023

Bottom: Some really filmy slime that had formed in the new streams


These samples will allow us to understand how these organisms cope (or don’t!) with the vast seasonal changes on the ice, and to enhance satellite based algorithms to monitor their growth. It’s time to get in the lab, and begin to plan for next summer!


(Luke is a PhD student in the Department of Geography, The University of Sheffield, supervised by Darrel Swift, and co-supervised by Rob Bryant and Jags Pandhal. He will be using hyperspectral imaging, metagenomics and metaproteomics to locate, identify and functionally analyse microbial communities in the glacier)

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