Warming Climate May Have Detrimental Effects On Microbes In Alpine Streams

May 31, 2019

Alpine areas are predicted to be one of the areas most affected by climate change and some unique microbes have made their homes in the glacier-fed streams there. The loss of these little critters can have large effects on both the ecosystem around them and on people, says University of Wyoming invertebrate zoologist Lusha Tronstad.

 The microbes help to clean the stream water by breaking down dead material. They also serve as a food source for insects around them, including a species of stonefly that is being considered for endangered species status. Tronstad predicts that air temperature will be a deciding factor in the survival of these streams and their microscopic inhabitants. 

Streams in the alpine areas are fed by glacier run off and provide fresh water for people to use.
Credit Lusha Tronstad

"Especially at these high elevations, we're expecting that these surface glaciers, rock glaciers, and our permanent snowfields are going to melt. And these streams are predicted to dry or go intermittent--that is, flow only part of the year. And so, if these streams dry, our glaciers disappear, then these microbes won't have a home," said Tronstad.

Without the glacier-fed streams, not only do the microbes die off, but people also lose out on valuable fresh water."I think a lot of people don't realize it, but our fresh water, a lot of that originates in glaciers and mountain snowpack. So these stores of ice and snow are really important to our daily lives," she said.

But rock glaciers give us hope for the persistence of some streams. Those are glaciers covered in rocks and debris, which act as a sort of insulator. The debris keeps the ice cold during the summer and allows it to release air during the winter, helping it to cool down even more.

These glaciers are expected to be the least affected by the warming temperatures, which means their streams may persist for longer than the other types of streams. Good news for us and the microbes.