We explore the diversity and functional characteristics of microorganisms living in glacier-fed streams from around the world before their habitat disappears with ongoing climate change.

Mountain glaciers are disappearing around the world at a rapid pace. Yet, the full impact of this global transition cannot be fully appreciated given our limited understanding of the life that inhabits these extreme environments. This stands in stark contrast to most other biomes on Earth which have been studied in detail, including deep sea sediments and high elevation terrestrial ecosystems.

Microorganisms are the most ancient, abundant, and successful lifeforms on Earth. For more than three billion years, microorganisms have been at the center of major planetary cycles, enduring mass extinctions and global ice ages. In glacier-fed streams, microbial life dominates, utilizing a diversity of lifestyles and strategies to survive in some of the most harsh environments on the planet, just as they have for millions of years.

We are losing more than just water – we are also losing the unique microbial life that has adapted to the extreme conditions of glacier-fed streams. Working at the boundaries of microbial ecology, biogeochemistry, glaciology, and geology, the Vanishing Glaciers Project will answer fundamental questions on the life of glacial fed streams.

What microorganisms live in glacier-fed streams? Despite the widespread global distribution of glacier fed-streams, we have only a limited view of who lives there. By sampling glacier-fed streams spanning a wide gradient in chemical and physical characteristics across the globe, we will investigate if and how these microbial communities differ across space, and what conditions affect their structure.

What are the functional characteristics of microorganisms in glacier-fed streams? Glacier-fed streams are hotspots of metabolism and nutrient cycling, providing a functional link between the glacial habitat and downstream ecosystems. Through metagenomic sequencing and activity rate measurements, we will identify and quantify the processes allowing glacier-fed stream microorganisms to persist in these harsh habitats year after year.

How will these microbial communities and their functional processes change as the world’s mountain glaciers vanish? By using the information gained from this ambitious effort, Vanishing Glaciers researchers will be able to project the fate of these unique habitats into the future.