My colleagues and I just published a new study on what limits microscopic Antarctic life in the tiny oases found on glaciers (cryoconite holes): Unlike much of the Dry Valleys region, “cryo holes” aren’t limited by moisture – so what determines the upper limit of growth there?

Photosynthesis by algae and cyanobacteria forms the basis of the food web, and like primary producers everywhere, key macronutrients like nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) can limit their growth.

Multiple lines of evidence in this paper and in past studies show that P is the real limit on primary production and resulting growth cascading through the community, and that at least on some glaciers, N is likely being “fixed” into biologically usable forms from atmospheric N.

Why does any of this matter? It can seem small and insignificant in the face of current geopolitical conflicts. I am posting this on the day that Russia brazenly invaded Ukraine.

Alternatively, our human conflicts can seem small and insignificant in the face of the vast polar regions and the mysteries of nature.

The cryosphere makes up a significant part of our planet, even if we rarely think of it because it’s not so habitable for humans. That makes it globally important, and also an important “natural laboratory” for biology. A natural lab we are rapidly losing as it warms, however.

This paper highlights the need to conduct actual experiments, adding N and P to cryoconite ecosystems to see how they change as a result. I hope to receive funding to do just that in the future 🙂

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