What melting Tibetan glaciers reveal about disease and global warming – Eco-Business

“More research is needed for the identification of changes in microbial diversity in the different Himalayan regions. [It has been] established that unidentified microbial communities now predominate in the Indo-Tibetan region, northeast Himalayas and even in the western Himalayas (Ladakh),” Naz says, citing a paper confirming the discovery of methanogens in soil samples. Methanogens are microorganisms that produce methane as a byproduct of metabolism, and are mostly found in environments that lack oxygen.

Another paper on the microbiome of the Himalayan ecosystem described the presence of “unknown” microbes, even though it found proteobactaria to be dominant, indicating that more studies are required.

“It is very important to conduct a genomic analysis on our glaciers and assess who [is] potentially at a higher risk,” Menon says, referring to remote communities who live close to rivers and have not been exposed to these microbes previously.

The global warming cataclysm

Global warming has increased the rate at which glaciers melt. Between 2000 and 2020, 85.3 per cent of 1,704 of the world’s glaciers retreated. The Tibetan Plateau contains low-latitude glaciers that are vulnerable to global warming, and glaciers in India are melting at a similar rate. This retreat will increase the volume of nutrients and microorganisms released into downstream ecosystems, posing a risk to life.

“Global warming accelerates glacier retreat, and the enhanced meltwater discharge can increase the chance of these virulence factors interacting with local plants, animals and humans,” the Lanzhou University study says.

Menon stresses that since humans do not have defences against these microbes because they originate from unexpected sources, this will become an increasingly important problem associated with global warming.

The Lanzhou University study reveals that some of these micro-organisms have demonstrated “the ability to adapt to these extreme conditions and contribute to vital ecological processes, such as carbon and nitrogen cycling”, creating a vicious feedback loop. Naz explains that the methanogenic microbial strains beneath melting ice caps that are being exposed are accelerating global warming. As they produce methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas with a global-warming potential of up to 34 times that of CO2, this could cause ice caps to melt even faster in future.

The need for further research into microbes in glaciers

The microbes that inhabit glaciers differ from place to place, meaning one study from Tibet may not be valid for other glaciers. It is therefore important to conduct individual studies to prepare countries for potential disease outbreaks.

“Some of these microbes have strong adaptive abilities and, in favourable conditions, they may proliferate. This will lead to pathogenicity [the ability of the pathogen to produce disease]. Thus it is highly important to learn the role of these microbes on the human population, their adaptive features, and which flora [plants] they exist in,” says Ram Chandra, head of the department of environment microbiology at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in India.

Chandra cites the example of Covid-19. Even after coronavirus was discovered, its effect on the population and its highly adaptive nature could not be known.

“The government should invest more in similar studies as [the one] done by Lanzhou University, as there is no concrete data available at the moment,” he says.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.


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