02.08.2019 change 02.08.2019
Ludwika Tomala
Ludwika Tomala

Study the snow of Kilimanjaro! Equatorial glaciers disappear so quickly!

Kilimanjaro glacier. Credit: E. Wiejaczka Kilimanjaro glacier. Credit: E. Wiejaczka

We could be the last generation that can admire glaciers... on the equator. And with the melting glaciers, ecosystems are dying, which scientists have not yet explored, warns Dr. Krzysztof Zawierucha, who discovered new species of tardigrades on a Uganda glacier.

Glaciers are found not only in the polar regions, but also in the equatorial zone, on the highest peaks of Tanzania (Kilimanjaro), Uganda (Ruwenzori), Kenya (Kenya), New Guinea (Puncak Jaya), Colombia (Nevado del Huila) and Ecuador (Antisana).

"Our ancestors saw snow-covered and icy peaks in Africa. But we could be the last generation that can see these glaciers and, above all, study the life on them. Equatorial glaciers are disappearing extremely fast and who knows, perhaps civilization will not see the next ones. Or the next glaciers will not see another civilization" - Krzysztof Zawierucha, a biologist and ecologist from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań says in an interview with PAP.


Glacier in Uganda. Credit: J. Uetake

He refers to the study of glaciologists, according to which glaciers in Uganda may disappear over the next 5 years, on Kilimanjaro - in two or three decades, and glaciers in Ecuador or New Guinea will last a few decades longer. Based on publications about the dynamics of equatorial glaciers, Dr Zawierucha concludes that these glaciers disappear due to the increase in temperature, but also other consequences of global changes including changes in the amount of rainfall or air humidity.


"Equatorial glaciers are cold islands for life in the tropics. With melting ice, not only single species disappear, not only entire habitats, but entire ecosystems! Because of the unique location of these glaciers, we should expect that they are home to species unknown to science. On the other hand, it would be wonderful to discover the same organisms as the ones living in the Alps or Patagonia. It would be a perfect example of how microscopic organisms move with air masses, but will only develop in the same type of ecosystem. Unfortunately, we do not know much about all this" - the scientist notes. He explains that there have been very few studies on the life of equatorial glaciers.

"While there are hundreds of globally published scientific papers on the biology of polar glaciers, Alpine glaciers and the Third Pole (glaciers of Central Asia), so far just two papers have been devoted to biodiversity of equatorial glaciers and another two to equatorial snow" - the ecologist notes.

red snow

Red snow, algae blooms. Credit: K. Zawierucha

In the publication in Ecology and Evolution, the ecologist appeals to scientists to pursue this research topic before it is too late.

"The goal of this article is to provoke discussion and action. A glacier is also someone`s home! This place is kind to organisms such as cyanobacteria, algae, protozoa, bryophytes, as well as invertebrates: tardigrades and rotifers. And we can learn a lot from the organisms that inhabit glaciers; for example, how to survive in extreme conditions. Knowledge about them can shed new light on the still intensely studied distribution of cryophilic species" - he says and adds that these small glaciers also supply water to streams that are also home to many groups of unique invertebrates.

According to the researcher, we should collect samples of as many organisms from these inaccessible areas as possible, not only to study and describe them, but also to store them for research for future generations, who, while having more advanced research techniques, will not have an opportunity to examine these organisms in natural conditions.


The researcher notes that one of the two publications about life on equatorial glaciers was prepared by a team from Japan. This paper concerns bryophytes growing on the glacier in Uganda and the previously unknown bacteria that inhabit them. The second paper was written by Dr. Zawierucha and colleagues... who obtained a moss sample from that team. "I asked the Japanese to send me moss samples, and in those samples I found of rotifers and tardigrades. I discovered two species of tardigrades and named one of them Adropion afroglacialis (species name means "African glacier") - he says.


Adropion afroglacialis - a new species of tardigrade from the glacier in Uganda. Credit: K. Zawierucha

Tardigrades are 1/3 mm invertebrates, "ice lions" capable of surviving in extreme conditions, in which almost no other animal can live. The researcher points out that the new tardigrades have been discovered in moss samples. We can only guess what else is left to discover in other ice habitats.

The scientist explains that life on glaciers can be found primarily in places where black deposit called cryoconite builds up and cryoconite holes form. "This is one of the most extreme ecosystems on our planet, where small tardigrades and rotifers are usually the largest consumers" - he explains.

Cryoconite holes

Cryoconite holes. Credit: K. Zawierucha


Cryoconite - a dark deposit on the glacier. Credit: K. Zawierucha


Asked why scientists have been so uninterested in describing the endangered ecosystems of tropical glaciers, he says that the problem is accessibility of these places and logistics. According to the researcher, it is easier to organize and finance an expedition to Spitsbergen where there are research stations near glaciers than an expedition to the highest peaks of Uganda or New Guinea. He points out that, for example, an expensive helicopter would be needed in the tropics for fast transport of sensitive biological material. Research permits are also very expensive. And the ultimate problem is bureaucracy. "In addition, equatorial glaciers are small and do not affect the biogeochemical cycles on our planet as much as the large ice caps, hence the negligible interest" - the researcher says.

Dr. Zawierucha says that he is already in contact with Polish mountain guides who, after obtaining appropriate permits, will collect samples for his research during their next expeditions to Kilimanjaro, and with other scientists who also plan to study life on equatorial glaciers before it is too late.

"We have shown new species that live on the surface of the glacier in Uganda. What can we expect under the surface of the glacier, where ice meets rock, where it is dark, cold and there is no oxygen?" - the scientist asks. In his opinion, these are conditions straight out of a science fiction movie.


Cyanobacteria (threads) growing on the cryoconite deposit (called cryoconite granule). Credit: K. Zawierucha

"We have modern technology and great knowledge. I really appreciate and am interested in future research on ice on other planets or moons of the Solar System. But we forget to study the ecosystems that we have here on our planet, ones that will disappear forever in the coming years. We will be left with photos and guesses as to what little beasts could have lived there and what we could have learnt about them and from them" - the researcher concludes.

PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala

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