COVER.UP: Protecting Europe’s glacier ecosystems?

At least 17% of Europe’s population lives within mountainous areas, depending heavily upon fragile Alpine ecosystems which include snow and ice habitats for food, water and economic security. The snowsport industry alone has an estimated global value of €70 billion. For these reasons the aggravated impacts of climate warming on European mountain ecosystems will have profound social and economic impacts.

To help stabilize snow and ice reserves in high value areas (for example, skiing pistes and glaciers) the use of “glacier fleece” is becoming widespread in the European Alps. This entails covering up the snow or ice surface with a thin layer of white synthetic fabric to increase the reflectivity of the frozen surface to bounce solar energy away. This can be highly effective in reducing melt, but at what cost?

As part of an international project “COVER.UP” funded by the Austrian Government’s Sparkling Science initiative, IBERS glacier microbiologists led by join Austrian scientists and schoolchildren to investigate the costs and benefits of using glacier fleece to protect high-value ice.

Initial studies show chemicals leaching from the fleece can effect sensitive microbial ecosystems within the ice and snow, and potentially pollute water sources fed from glaciers. Schoolchildren will work with scientists to use laser scanning and DNA sequencing to collect more data.

The research programme builds upon expertise and facilities in geo-genomics within IBERS and Aberystwyth University, as well as long-term collaboration with scientists at Innsbruck University’s Institute for Ecology and the Austrian Polar Research Institute led by Professor Birgit Sattler to explore microbial life upon, within and beneath Earth’s frozen habitats and how interacts with our changing climate.

Key scientific outputs from the collaboration to date include the first genomic blueprint for life on ice, the discovery that Arctic snow harbours highly dynamic bacterial communities and the first comparison of bacterial communities between Arctic and Alpine glacier surface habitats, with funding from the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, the Austrian Government and the Microbiology Society.


TOP: The effect of glacier fleece is clearly visible in conserving up an extra metre of snowpack across a large area of skiing piste visible in this picture.
BOTTOM: Dr Arwyn Edwards on Svalbard in the High Arctic, working in collaboration with the Innsbruck University team on related project SNOW.MELT.