What Tibet’s melting glaciers reveal about disease and global warming | News | Eco-Enterprise

“Further research is needed to identify changes in microbial diversity in different regions of the Himalayas. [It has been] established that unidentified microbial communities now predominate in the Indo-Tibetan region, the northeastern Himalayas and even in the western Himalayas (Ladakh),” Naz said, citing a paper confirming the discovery of methanogens in soil samples. Methanogens are microorganisms that produce methane as a byproduct of metabolism and are found primarily in environments lacking oxygen.

Another article on the microbiome of the Himalayan ecosystem described the presence of “unknown” microbes, although he found proteobacteria to be dominant, indicating that further studies are needed.

“It is very important to carry out a genomic analysis on our glaciers and to assess who [is] potentially at higher risk,” Menon says, referring to remote communities who live near rivers and have never been exposed to these germs before.

The cataclysm of global warming

Global warming has accelerated the rate at which glaciers are melting. Between 2000 and 2020, 85.3% of 1,704 of the world’s glaciers have retreated. The Tibetan Plateau contains low-latitude glaciers that are vulnerable to global warming, and glaciers in India melt 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 is accelerating glacier retreat, and increased meltwater flow may increase the chances that these virulence factors will interact with local plants, animals, and humans,” the study says. Lanzhou University.

Menon points out that since humans have no defenses against these microbes because they come from unexpected sources, this will become a growing problem associated with global warming.

The Lanzhou University study reveals that some of these microorganisms have demonstrated “the ability to adapt to these extreme conditions and contribute to vital ecological processes, such as the carbon and nitrogen cycle. “, creating a vicious feedback loop. Naz explains that methanogenic microbial strains under melting ice caps that are exposed are accelerating global warming. By producing methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of up to 34 times that of CO2, this could lead to even faster melting of the ice sheets in the future.

The need for further research on microbes in glaciers

The microbes that inhabit glaciers differ from place to place, which means that a study of Tibet may not be valid for other glaciers. It is therefore important to conduct individual studies to prepare countries for possible epidemics.

“Some of these microbes have strong adaptive abilities and under favorable conditions they can proliferate. This will lead to pathogenicity [the ability of the pathogen to produce disease]. It is therefore very important to know the role of these microbes on the human population, their adaptive characteristics and which flora [plants] they exist,” says Ram Chandra, head of the department of environmental microbiology at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in India.

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

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

This story was published with permission from The third pole.

Teresa H. Sadler