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Algal photophysiology drives darkening and melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet

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  • Christopher J. Williamson, University of Bristol
  • ,
  • Joseph Cook, Aberystwyth University
  • ,
  • Andrew Tedstone, University of Bristol
  • ,
  • Marian Yallop, University of Bristol
  • ,
  • Jenine McCutcheon, University of Leeds
  • ,
  • Ewa Poniecka, Cardiff University
  • ,
  • Douglas Campbell, Mount Allison University
  • ,
  • Tristram Irvine-Fynn, Aberystwyth University
  • ,
  • James McQuaid, University of Leeds
  • ,
  • Martyn Tranter, University of Bristol
  • ,
  • Rupert Perkins, Cardiff University
  • ,
  • Alexandre Anesio
Blooms of Zygnematophycean “glacier algae” lower the bare ice albedo of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS), amplifying summer en- ergy absorption at the ice surface and enhancing meltwater runoff from the largest cryospheric contributor to contemporary sea-level rise. Here, we provide a step change in current understanding of algal-driven ice sheet darkening through quantification of the photophysiological mechanisms that allow glacier algae to thrive on and darken the bare ice surface. Significant secondary phe- nolic pigmentation (11 times the cellular content of chlorophyll a) enables glacier algae to tolerate extreme irradiance (up to ∼4,000 μmol photons·m−2·s−1) while simultaneously repurposing captured ultraviolet and short-wave radiation for melt generation. Total cellular energy absorption is increased 50-fold by pheno- lic pigmentation, while glacier algal chloroplasts positioned be- neath shading pigments remain low-light–adapted (Ek ∼46 μmol photons·m−2·s−1) and dependent upon typical nonphotochemical quenching mechanisms for photoregulation. On the GrIS, glacier algae direct only ∼1 to 2.4% of incident energy to photochemistry versus 48 to 65% to ice surface melting, contributing an additional ∼1.86 cm water equivalent surface melt per day in patches of high algal abundance (∼104 cells·mL−1). At the regional scale, surface darkening is driven by the direct and indirect impacts of glacier algae on ice albedo, with a significant negative relationship between broadband albedo (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer [MODIS]) and glacier algal biomass (R2 = 0.75, n = 149), indicating that up to 75% of the variability in albedo across the southwestern GrIS may be attributable to the presence of glacier algae.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Pages (from-to)5694-5705
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 17 Mar 2020

    Research areas

  • Cryosphere, Glacier algae, Greenland Ice Sheet, Melt, Photophysiology

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