Climate change continues to cause glaciers to melt at a rapid pace, and, what’s worse, this melting could release tons of bacteria, which could leak into bodies of water like lakes and rivers. According to a study completed by researchers from Aberystwyth University, an estimated 100,000 tons (or more) of microbes — namely, bacteria, — could be “released into the environment over the next 80 years.” This tonnage is essentially equivalent to the number of cells in every single human on Earth.
For the aforementioned study, researchers collected surface meltwaters from a total of eight glaciers in Europe, Greenland, and North America. (The group was unable to study the Himalaya Hindu Kush region). While the microbes that wash downstream from the glaciers could fertilize ecosystems, these microbes still require more in-depth study in order to determine what pathogens are present. Unfortunately, because the glaciers are melting so quickly, everyone is working at a breakneck speed to understand as much as possible about glaciers and their by-products. Dr. Arwyn Edwards, who is part of the study team, said, “we are seeing the glaciers die before our eyes, affecting the microbes that are there, with implications for us locally and globally.”
The estimated tonnage of bacteria to be released relies on the assumption that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will continue to rise at a moderate rate; however, if CO2 emissions are cut — which would slow global warming and glacier melting — then we can expect a mass microbe reduction of about one-third. However, there is still so little known about these microbes, and the researchers lack the sufficient data necessary “to understand the value and the threat of these organisms.” There is also, Dr. Edwards says, some concern that there will be a “doomsday pathogen melting out of the glaciers.” Fortunately, he believes it to be a “very minor risk,” yet it is risk-free, so he and his team will continue to do “risk assessment” of the microbes.
Sheets and glaciers cover approximately 10 percent of the Earth’s surface, and together they make up the largest reservoir of freshwater worldwide. In spite of the extreme conditions in which they are found, these surfaces are able to support a vast spectrum of life, which can include algae, bacteria, and fungi. In addition, these microbes can act as, essentially, records of past microorganisms; the oldest revived microorganism to date was more than 10,000 years old. And, just as these glaciers help us to understand our past, they can help us with our future, which is why the melting of the glaciers is so disconcerting.
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