The global carbon cycle is kind of a big deal. It’s our attempt to describe where all the carbon on Earth is at any given moment. But, our understanding isn’t complete…
Basically, all life on Earth is made of carbon bonded with other elements, like oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Things quickly get complicated from there, because carbon is everywhere and constantly moving.
For example, when an organism dies, its carbon is either consumed by other organisms, released into the atmosphere through decomposition, or both.
The most important thing to know is that at all times, some carbon is available to be used by organisms, but a much larger portion of carbon isn’t able to be accessed – it’s stored in the Earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere.
Carbon is also stored in ice worldwide. Microorganisms on and in ice play a big part in determining whether carbon is being added to or removed from that ice, but scientists don’t yet know whether addition or removal occurs more often.
Streams that flow over the top of glaciers (called supraglacial streams) provide habitat for diverse microbial communities. However, little scientific work has been done in these streams. Nobody’s calculated whether the carbon cycling in these streams is adding or removing carbon from glaciers.
We’re addressing this knowledge gap. Our lab has provided the first modern description of carbon cycling and microbial growth in an Antarctic supraglacial stream.
We did this by applying established research methods in new ways to measure exactly what the microbes in these streams are doing with carbon. This work helps climate scientists predict what may happen as things continue to change.
Our work contributes information currently missing from the global carbon cycle, which illustrates key processes in how life is sustained on Earth.