Basal thermal regime affects the biogeochemistry of subglacial systems

Ashley Dubnick, Martin Sharp, Brad Danielson, Alireza Saidi-Mehrabad, Joel Barker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Ice formed in the subglacial environment can contain some of the highest concentrations of solutes, nutrients, and microbes found in glacier systems, which can be released to downstream freshwater and marine ecosystems and glacier forefields. Despite the potential ecological importance of basal ice, our understanding of its spatial and temporal biogeochemical variability remains limited. We hypothesize that the basal thermal regime of glaciers is a dominant control on subglacial biogeochemistry because it influences the degree to which glaciers mobilize material from the underlying substrate and controls the nature and extent of biogeochemical activity that occurs at glacier beds. Here, we characterize the solutes, nutrients, and microbes found in the basal regions of a cold-based glacier and three polythermal glaciers and compare them to those found in overlying glacier ice of meteoric origin. Compared to meteoric glacier ice, basal ice from polythermal glaciers was consistently enriched in major ions, dissolved organic matter (including a specific fraction of humic-like fluorescent material), and microbes and was occasionally enriched in dissolved phosphorus and reduced nitrogen (NHC+4) and in a second dissolved component of humic-like fluorescent material. In contrast, the biogeochemistry of basal ice from the cold-based glacier was remarkably similar to that of meteoric glacier ice. These findings suggest that a glacier's basal thermal regime can play an important role in determining the mix of solutes, nutrients, and microbes that are acquired from subglacial substrates or produced in situ.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)963-977
Number of pages15
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 24 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support. This research has been supported by the Natural

Publisher Copyright:
© Author(s) 2020.


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