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Opening the black box of glacial carbon cycling–providing fundamental insight into impacts of a changing climate

EMSL Project ID


The cycling of carbon on Earth influences atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and is therefore fundamentally tied to climate over long time periods. Roughly 104 petagrams of organic carbon (OC) are stored within ice worldwide, with primary sources of glacial carbon coming from new atmospherically deposited material and in situ production by microorganisms. Until recently this reservoir of carbon was viewed as inert and not incorporated into global models. In addition to glaciers being a sink for anthropogenic and natural sources of OC, glaciers are also viewed as active cyclers of carbon. It is well accepted that glaciers support diverse and active microbial communities with a range of functional capabilities. Less understood are the metabolic strategies of carbon transformation within glacial systems, which critically impact adjacent and downstream aquatic ecosystems. As glaciers warm, they not only release water, but microbes, carbon, and nutrients. Our research group studies microbial activity and carbon transformations in glaciers. The leading edge expertise and facilities at JGI and EMSL will catapult this work to identify active microbial assemblages across water:microbe and sediment:microbe interfaces linking genetic information to the processing of different sources of glacial OC, identify potential metabolic interdependencies, quantify the rate of carbon transformations, and track OC compositional shifts.

Project Details

Project type
FICUS Research
Start Date
End Date


Principal Investigator

Heidi Smith
Montana State University


Markus Dieser
Montana State University

Christine Foreman
Montana State University