Early colonisation of high Arctic substrates exposed by glacier retreat (eCHASE)

Early plant colonisation of substrates exposed by glacier retreat in the Bockfjorden area to be investigated by field survey, including drone-assisted mapping using GPS-linked photogrammetry. Carbon-based gas fluxes from exposed substrates exposed also to be measured and linked to microbial activity in substrate.

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Project type

  • field work


  • terrestrial biology

Project Keywords

  • biosphere / terrestrial ecosystems / alpine/tundra
  • biosphere / terrestrial ecosystems / montane habitats
  • biosphere / terrestrial ecosystems

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Accelerated retreat of glaciers in response to climate warming in the Arctic is becoming increasingly well documented. Glacier retreat results in the exposure of virgin surfaces for colonisation by both macroscopic plant life and microorganisms. Furthermore, the ages of these exposed surfaces can be dated, using aerial and satellite images of the extent of individual glaciers. This provides chronosequences of surfaces which, as in the classic studies by Crocker and Major in the Glacier Bay area of Alaska, can provide valuable insights into the interlinked processes of vegetation growth and alteration of the colonised substrate. Perhaps the most important aspect of this process is the accumulation of organic matter in the exposed substrate. This can be a slow process, though the rate can be estimated from examination of the chronosequences of substrates left behind by glacier retreat. A major concern in a warming arctic environment is the predicted acceleration in loss of carbon from peats as tundra surface temperatures increase. This loss could be balanced, to some extent, by the increased area of land available for organic matter accumulation as glaciers retreat. However, the potential for carbon accumulation in freshly exposed substrates will depend on the speed and extent to which colonisation by microorganisms and vegetation occurs. This project aims to estimate this potential based on field studies in the Bockfjorden area in 2017. We will examine the initial stages of colonisation of substrates exposed by glacier retreat in the Bockfjorden area. Field studies will involve systematic mapping of all macroscopic vegetation including lichens, bryophytes and vascular plant species. Drone-assisted survey using GPS-linked photogrammetry will be used in combination with field identification to provide georeferenced data which will be processed and mapped on return to the UK. Herbarium specimens may be taken to assist with positive identification of species, especially bryophytes. Soil samples will also be taken systematically throughout the survey area. These will be returned to the UK for chemical and microbiological analysis: the latter will focus on the distribution of major functional groups of soil microbes, probably using BIOLOG methods. Data from these analyses will be combined with geographic distributions of macroscopic species within a GIS to provide a comprehensive picture of the early biological colonisation of high Arctic substrates exposed by glacier retreat. Complementary field measurements of gas fluxes will also be carried out to quantify the balance of fluxes of CO2 and CH4 to and from exposed glacial substrates. A field-portable gas flux meter will be used for these analyses and the quantified gas fluxes will be linked to microbial activities in the substrates surveyed.

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