Life on ice

by Jacob Yde, April 23, 2024

The apparent brute nature of glaciers is deceiving. A new exhibition at the Norwegian Glacier Museum in Fjærland reveals the hidden life on Jostedalsbreen Ice Cap.

Glaciers are full of incredible lifeforms, although this is likely not the first impression one gets when walking across a glacier on a warm summer day. To explore this cold-adapted ecosystem to its fullest, one needs to look carefully at the glacier surface and often a microscope is required to observe the microbial activity.

The most eye catching is likely the orange- or red-colored snow algae that covers large areas of snow during the spring blooming season. Later in the season when the snow has melted and the ice surface is exposed on the lower parts of glaciers, microscopic organisms such as tardigrades (water bears) and rotifers (wheel animals) live in water-filled holes on the ice filled with granular dark debris called cryoconite.

Some of these resilient animals are unique to glaciers and climate-forced disappearance of glaciers may have significant consequences for their survival in a warmer climate. Visible animals such as collembola (springtails) may also be present and are sometimes found beneath rocks on the glacier surface, and in rare cases colonies of fascinating glacier mice (moss balls) are found rolling around on the surface. In central Norway, glacier mice are only known from Austerdalsbreen, where an endangered colony is threatened by glacier thinning, recession of the glacier front, and development of a proglacial lake.

Krzysztof Zawierucha, University of Poznan (left), Pål Gran Kielland, Norwegian Glacier Museum (center), and Jacob Clement Yde, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences (right) (photo: Marianne Nilsen).

A new exhibition at the Norwegian Glacier Museum in Fjærland entitled “Does life exist on the glacier?“ presents the glacial ecosystem to the visitors. At the opening of the exhibition on 16th April 2024, associate professor Krzysztof Zawierucha, a world-leading expert on glacial ecology from Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan in Poland, held an interesting talk on the present knowledge of the diversity of glacial lifeforms. There is still much to be explored when it comes to life on ice.