Storage and export of microbial biomass across the western Greenland Ice Sheet

Tristram Irvine-Fynn, Arwyn Edwards, Ian Thomas Stevens, Andy Mitchell, Pete Bunting, Jason Box, Karen Cameron, Joseph Cook, Kathrin Naegeli, Sara M. E. Rassner, Jonathan Ryan, Marek Stibal, Christopher Williamson, Alun Hubbard

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The Greenland Ice Sheet harbours a wealth of microbial life, yet the total biomass stored or exported from its surface to downstream environments is unconstrained. Here, we quantify microbial abundance and cellular biomass flux within the near-surface weathering crust photic zone of the western sector of the ice sheet. Using groundwater techniques, we demonstrate that interstitial water flow is slow (~10−2 m d−1), while flow cytometry enumeration reveals this pathway delivers 5 × 108 cells m−2 d−1 to supraglacial streams, equivalent to a carbon flux up to 250 g km−2 d−1. We infer that cellular carbon accumulation in the weathering crust exceeds fluvial export, promoting biomass sequestration, enhanced carbon cycling, and biological albedo reduction. We estimate that up to 37 kg km−2 of cellular carbon is flushed from the weathering crust environment of the western Greenland Ice Sheet each summer, providing an appreciable flux to support heterotrophs and methanogenesis at the bed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3960
Number of pages11
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Early online date25 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2021


  • Biomass
  • Carbon Cycle
  • Carbon/analysis
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Greenland
  • Hydrology
  • Ice Cover/chemistry
  • Weather


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