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Melting Glaciers and Warming Mountain Rivers May Increase Carbon Emissions

An Alaska CASC scientist and co-authors found that glacier loss from warming temperatures is changing mountain river ecosystems to create more favorable conditions for fungi that decompose leaves and grasses into carbon.

3 glaciers coming down from the mountains
Portage Glacier (right), Burns Glacier (center), Shakespeare Glacier (left) in Southcentral Alaska from the air.

Read the original news release posted by AAAS and University of Leeds, here and the Alaska CASC here

Alaska CASC researcher Eran Hood from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is part of an international research team that has for the first-time linked glacier-fed rivers to increased plant material decomposition. The team discovered that higher water temperatures due to decreased glacial flow creates favorable conditions for aquatic fungi to grow. Fungi break down organic materials like plant leaves and wood which leads to the decomposition of plant materials into carbon more quickly. Hood and co-authors carried out the study at sites around the world and suggest that there may be a universal rule for how rivers will evolve as glacier loss continues. These findings can be used by managers inform their decisions and forecasts about how river ecosystems will operate under a changing climate. 

“This study demonstrates a new link between glacier loss and climate change, namely that as glaciers shrink and contribute less to streamflow the rate of carbon cycling in rivers will increase and release more carbon (as CO2) to the atmosphere. Moreover, the patterns we detected were coherent across glacial rivers on four continents showing that this is a global phenomenon,” said Hood. 

The publication, “Fungal decomposition of river organic matter accelerated by decreasing glacier cover” in Nature Climate Change can be found here


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