Roundup: Lichen Colonization, Mercury Contamination, and Double Exposure

In this week’s Roundup, read about lichen colonization on Svalbard’s glaciers, mercury inputs from glacial rivers in High Arctic Canada, and the impact of both climate change and globalization on a small village in the Indian Himalayas.

Lichen Colonization on Svalbard’s Glaciers

From Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae: “The high number of lichen species that were new to Svalbard indicates the need for further research on the biodiversity of lichens in the Arctic. In particular, the glacier forelands deserve attention if further warming of the climate continues, as species sensitive to competition from vascular plants will move into habitats in the vicinity of glaciers.”

Read more here.

Lichen in Svalbard on GlacierHub
A colony of Lichen in Svalbard (Source: lnk75/Flickr).

Mercury Contamination in High Arctic Canada

From Environmental Science & Technology: “Glacial rivers were the most important source of MeHg and THg to Lake Hazen, accounting for up to 53% and 94% of the inputs, respectively. However, due to the MeHg and THg being primarily particle-bound, Lake Hazen was an annual MeHg and THg sink…This study highlights the potential for increases in mercury inputs to arctic ecosystems downstream of glaciers despite recent reductions in global mercury emissions.”

For more detail, click here to read GlacierHub’s recent post regarding this study.

Henrietta Nesmith glacier Lake Hazen on GlacierHub
A glacial river from the Henrietta Nesmith glacier, which flows into Lake Hazen (Source: Judith Slein/Flickr).

“Double Exposure” in Indian Himalayan Communities

From Environmental Science & Policy: “This study uses a living with approach to explore how change and development was experienced by a small agricultural community in the Indian Himalayas. The findings reveal ‘double exposure’ to an increasingly deficient water supply, and aspects of globalisation.”

Read more here.

village in Indian Himalayas on GlacierHub
A small village, nestled within the Indian Himalayas (Source: K/Flickr).


Off with the Wind: The Reproduction Story of Antarctic Lichens

How do organisms begin new life at the bare surfaces exposed by glacier retreat? A team of researchers from the Czech Republic recently published a paper on the spread of one organism, a lichen, across James Ross Island near the Antarctic Peninsula. The study found that lichens can disperse over long distances, likely by means of aerial transport. Increasing warming trends on James Ross Island will likely result in more deglaciation, providing species like lichens with the opportunity to colonize new areas.

Usnea sp Lichen on James Ross Island (Source: Elster Josef)
Usnea sp Lichen on James Ross Island (Source: Elster Josef).

There has previously been considerable debate on the reproductive and dispersal mechanisms of lichens, especially in the polar regions. The study’s findings on lichen reproduction is promising, given the important role lichens play as primary successors, contributing to soil development and the establishment of ecosystems with greater biomass and biodiversity. Combining an alga and a fungus, the lichen can grow on almost any surface, from sea level or high altitudes to the side of trees or on rocks. Lichens are also able to reproduce both sexually (through propagules, which are small, vegetative structures that get detached from the parent plant) or asexually (mini-lichens), and are transported by wind, sea currents or birds.

GlacierHub spoke with lead author Elster Josef from the Center of Polar Ecology about the study. He asserts that one of the most distinctive features of James Ross Island is the island’s so-called volcanic mesas, which are favorable locations for biomass growth. Volcanic mesas originate from superimposed subglacial volcanic eruptions and are characterized by a relatively flat highland with steep edges. Usnea sp., a lichen commonly known as the old man’s beard, is the most important lichen in this system. “It produces dense carpets in the oldest volcanic mesas. This species has many advantages in respect of dry local climate,” Josef said.

Overview of James Ross Island with its volcanic mesas (Source: Elster Josef)
Overview of James Ross Island with its volcanic mesas (Source: Elster Josef).

There is a clear gradient of lichen cover and diversity from north to south on James Ross Island, according to Josef. One important question of the research was how this lichen carpet advances with glacier retreat. Josef stated that his team was able to successfully develop a non-invasive method to measure lichen carpet diversity and biomass. Traps in the form of petri dishes fixed to rock surfaces with stick tape were the simplest and most effective way for the team to measure lichen dispersal across the island, according to Josef. A total of 100 traps were placed during the summer season of January/February 2008 and left exposed for a year. In the end, only 60 traps were found due to snow cover and strong wind disturbance.

For the Antarctic lichens, vegetative asexual reproduction was found to be more dominant due to environmental stresses. While the old man’s beard and the Leptogium fungus (Leptogium puberulum) were the two most common local species on the island, their frequency of occurrence in the traps was unrelated to local species dominance. Long-distance dispersal of vegetative parts occurs more frequently on the larger scale as a result of wind conditions.

Lichen Spore/Fragment trap designed for the research using sticky tape in a petri dish(Source: Elster Josef)
Lichen Spore/Fragment trap designed for the research using sticky tape in a petri dish (Source: Elster Josef).

Surface wind speeds on the mesas are often higher than 6m/s (roughly 12 mi/hr) on average, with extremes reaching up to 30m/s (60 mi/hr). Larger amounts of lichen spores and fragments were found in the traps located along the prevailing wind direction. Overall, the highest occurring species in the traps were of foliose and fruticose growth types, which favored wind dispersals.

The main difficulty of the research method was that the dispersal of lichens is influenced by many abiotic and also biotic factors, according to Josef. These include distance from glaciers and elevation to existing lichen diversity and cover on site. The method was also limited because it did not involve measurements of what is viably ready (in-situ) to start growth and only measured what types of lichens were dispersed.

A team member collecting the samples on the sticky tape after the trap was exposed for a year (Source: Elster Josef)
A team member collecting the samples on the sticky tape after the trap was exposed for a year (Source: Elster Josef).

The greatest confirmation to the team’s hypothesis was the strong positive correlation between the size of clast, or rock fragment, and the dispersed species assembly. Clast size is determined based on the average diameter of rocks in the area. Often, areas with larger clast size are characterized by a thriving diversity of lichen communities. They represent more stable locations for growth since larger stones shield the newly-trapped lichen fragments from being uprooted by the wind again.

Still, according to Josef, lichen development is rather rare despite the large numbers of reproductive fragments dispersed. The growth of a lichen community is a long-term process, and Josef hopes to continue to evaluate the reaction of lichens to climate change in polar regions to shed light on the colonization mechanism of pioneer species in newly-exposed surfaces.

Roundup: A Melting Iceberg, Cryoconites, and Lichens

Drifting Icebergs, Bacterial Activity and Aquatic Ecosystems

From BioOne Complete: “The number of icebergs produced from ice-shelf disintegration has increased over the past decade in Antarctica. These drifting icebergs mix the water column, influence stratification and nutrient condition, and can affect local productivity and food web composition. Data on whether icebergs affect bacterioplankton function and composition are scarce, however. We assessed the influence of iceberg drift on bacterial community composition and on their ability to exploit carbon substrates during summer in the coastal Southern Ocean. An elevated bacterial production and a different community composition were observed in iceberg-influenced waters relative to the undisturbed water column nearby.”

Read the research paper here.

Antarctic Peninsula
Antarctic Peninsula (Source: GRID Arendal/Flickr).

The Tibetan Plateau and Cryoconite Bacterial Communities

From Oxford Academic: “Cryoconite holes, water-filled pockets containing biological and mineralogical deposits that form on glacier surfaces, play important roles in glacier mass balance, glacial geochemistry and carbon cycling. The presence of cryoconite material decreases surface albedo and accelerates glacier mass loss, a problem of particular importance in the rapidly melting Tibetan Plateau.”

Learn more about the research here.

Cryoconites (Source: Joseph Dsilva/Flickr).

Lichen Diversity on Glacier Moraines in Svalbard

From BioOne Complete: “This paper contributes to studies on the lichen biota of Arctic glacier forelands. The research was carried out in the moraines of three different glaciers in Svalbard: Longyearbreen, Irenebreen and Rieperbreen. In total, 132 lichen taxa and three lichenicolous lichens were recorded. Eight species were recorded for the first time in the Svalbard archipelago: Arthonia gelidae, Buellia elegans, Caloplaca lactea, Cryptodiscus pallidus, Fuscidea kochiana, Merismatium deminutum, Physconia distorta, and Polyblastia schaereriana. One species, Staurothele arctica, was observed for the first time in Spitsbergen (previously recorded only on Hopen island).”

Read the research paper here.

Lichen in Svalberg (Source: Tim Ellis/Flickr).