Supraglacial microbes use young carbon and not aged cryoconite carbon

Drake O. McCrimmon, Michael Bizimis, Alexandra Holland, Lori A. Ziolkowski*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Cryoconite holes are depressions in glacial ice surfaces filled with dark debris that reduce albedo. The relative contributions of combustion and microbial carbon to cryoconite carbon are currently not known. To constrain cryoconite organic carbon composition and carbon sources to microorganisms living on glacier surfaces, measurements of bulk organic carbon and microbial phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) from supraglacial cryoconite sediment within the ablation zones of Spencer and Matanuska glaciers in southern Alaska were coupled with radiocarbon (14C) analyses. The 14C content of bulk cryoconite organic carbon on both glaciers was depleted relative to the modern atmosphere, while the PLFAs contained carbon that was recently in equilibrium with the atmosphere. Because the bulk cryoconite material is isotopically distinct from the PLFAs, these results indicate that cryoconite organic carbon is not bioavailable to the microbes. Instead, modern carbon in the microbes suggests that carbon is being quickly cycled by them within the cryoconite. Biomarker and stable isotope analyses of cryoconite organic carbon points to fresh carbon inputs to cryoconite and indicates that combusted fossil carbon is a not a major component of cryoconite organic carbon. Trace element analyses of the bulk cryoconite show crustal inputs and no evidence for excess metals associated with recent combustions sources, indicating that the aged bulk cryoconite organic carbon is likely of rock origin (e.g., shale). This study highlights that microbes in cryoconite holes on these glaciers are fixing atmospheric carbon and not using the aged carbon surrounding them.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-72
Number of pages10
JournalOrganic Geochemistry
Early online date15 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


  • Cryoconite
  • Cryosphere
  • Lipids
  • Microbial
  • Phospholipid fatty acids
  • Radiocarbon
  • Trace elements


Dive into the research topics of 'Supraglacial microbes use young carbon and not aged cryoconite carbon'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this