When Scientists Cut Into A Chinese Glacier, They Discovered A Deadly Secret Frozen Inside

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In the Chinese highlands of the Tibetan Plateau, a particular frozen landform has stood for millennia. Known as the Guliya ice cap, this feature has been of interest to researchers in recent times. In fact, scientists have conducted some investigations there – and the results have highlighted the potential for a catastrophe.

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The researchers came to this troubling conclusion after analyzing a pair of samples from Guliya. They were extracted by drilling into the ice cap and removing two cylinder-shaped pieces. The chunks were later examined by scientists, who soon realized that they held big secrets with conceivably significant ramifications.

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It was found that the ice of Guliya had been concealing something strange for up to, perhaps, 15,000 years. An exciting discovery, to be sure, but one which asks some uncomfortable questions. For instance, what happens if the ice cap melts? Would the potentially dangerous contents of the glacier then be cast into our environment?

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If this were to happen, the consequences to humanity could ultimately prove deadly. And with the scientific community widely warning of rising temperatures, preparing for the possibility of Guliya melting could be a wise move. With that in mind, studying and understanding the ice cap may be a vital endeavor.

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Guliya is situated to the northwest of the Tibetan Plateau, a vast expanse which covers parts of China and India. The ice cap and the area surrounding it are home to the most significant population of glaciers beyond the North and South Poles. For this reason, it’s sometimes also called the Third Pole.

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The Tibetan Plateau is the biggest high plain on Earth, both in terms of its height and its area. The latter, in fact, is said to cover 970,000 square miles, which is around 500 percent larger than France. On average, the plateau stretches to an altitude of more than 14,800 feet.

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Beyond the North and South Poles, the Tibetan Plateau is said to hold Earth’s most significant supply of freshwater. Indeed, one might imagine the area’s variety of landforms as acting as a sort of “water tower.” Given all that, the scientific community has, understandably, exhibited concern for how climate change is affecting the plateau.

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In 2009 the former director of China’s weather agency spoke to Tibet Daily about how the plateau is faring. “Temperatures are rising four times faster than elsewhere in China,” said Qin Dahe. “And the Tibetan glaciers are retreating at a higher speed than in any other part of the world.”

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Elaborating further, Dahe went on, “In the short term, this will cause lakes to expand and bring floods and mudflows… In the long run, the glaciers are vital lifelines for Asian rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. Once they vanish, water supplies in those regions will be in peril.”

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Of course, one of the specific glaciers under threat in the Tibetan Plateau is the Guliya ice cap. An ice cap is defined as a glacier with an area encompassing less than 19,000 square miles. This is in contrast to an ice sheet, which is defined as covering more than that total area.

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An ice cap is also characterized by the fact that it’s not constricted by other sorts of landforms. If we take a mountain, for example, an ice cap will settle over it, rather than having the peak jutting through. If the mountain were to rise from the glacier, however, the frozen mass would then be known as an ice field.

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Ice caps have a huge influence over the shape of the landscapes in which they’re found. In fact, many notable landforms and geographical bodies around the globe have been created as a result of an ice cap. The Great Lakes of the United States and Canada are just some significant examples of glacial action.

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1As such, ice caps are a worthy source of fascination within the scientific community today. However, it’s not just their part in shaping the land which makes them vital to study. You see, as of the beginning of the 20th century, it’s been known that glaciers harbor traces of life.

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As the new millennium approached, more research was undertaken with the aim of learning more about the organisms in the ice. These studies suggested that instances of life in glaciers was actually quite rare, with few microorganisms present. Researchers theorized that the cells which were discovered had been in the Earth’s atmosphere when the ice formed. As such, they could help paint a picture of conditions dating back millennia.

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Most of the microorganisms discovered in glacier ice have been defined as various species of bacteria. These have been largely psychrotolerants, which means their most favorable growing conditions are at temperatures higher than freezing level. Having said that, they’re capable of hibernating in ice for a considerable amount of time.

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But while all this is known to researchers, there are still questions that need to be answered. After all, it’s a difficult area to study with the rigor required, as it’s very common for samples to become corrupted by contemporary microorganisms in the course of investigations. Which means that cleaner methods of research need to be developed.

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That’s exactly what one team focusing their research efforts on the Guliya ice cap have sought to do. Having conducted a range of experiments, this group developed a new method for analyzing samples from ice. And if their claims are to be believed, the technique should lead to more accurate results regarding microorganisms in glaciers.

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In addition to the challenges related to contamination, glaciers can also be difficult to study for a host of other reasons. If we take the Tibetan Plateau specifically, we realize that not much is known about its ice features. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the area’s freezing temperatures and difficult-to-navigate terrain.

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But the team of scientists determined to learn more about glacial ice microorganisms journeyed to the tableau despite those dangers. Focusing on the Guliya ice cap, they set about employing their cleaner techniques to examine ice cores. But there’s a specific process that must be followed in order to obtain those samples.

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Ice cores are actually retrieved with the help of drills, be they mechanical or manual. The subsequent samples can reveal a lot about glaciers, such as their age. These large formations are, after all, created as snow accumulates over time, layer by layer. As such, the ice nearer to the surface is younger than that beneath it.

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The specific characteristics exhibited by a given section of glacial ice – not to mention the matter within it – can tell researchers a lot about what the environment was like when the cap formed. The levels of oxygen and hydrogen, for instance, can shed light on weather conditions dating back millennia. And air bubbles can reveal information about the atmosphere.

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But the researchers at Guliya wanted to learn about something else. They were looking to acquire more information about microorganisms in the ice. And it seems they were successful in their efforts. As can be seen from the paper published on bioRxiv, the group discovered numerous species of unknown viruses.

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According to the bioRxivits website, it hosts an internet-based collection of scientific papers which have not yet been published. As such, they have not been subjected to meticulous peer review. The site does, however, allow for scientists to quickly take a look at new work and give a response to its creators.

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In the bioRxiv piece related to Guliya, the authors referenced a pair of ice cores which had been removed from the ice cap. These were extracted more than two decades apart;, the first taken in 1992 and the second in 2015. During both of those removals however, no actions were taken to eliminate the chance of the samples becoming contaminated.

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As such, the outer layers of the samples were exposed to contaminates. But in the center, the ice was still pure, containing only what had been trapped when it initially formed. So, in order to get to their middles without corrupting them, the scientists took the samples to facility with a freezing atmosphere.

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In this incredibly cold room, the researchers shaved away the outside of the samples with a sterile blade. But this wasn’t enough, so they got rid of a little more of the outer ice by thawing it out using ethanol. Then, they used clean water to wash away a fraction of an inch more.

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By the end of these steps, the scientists had removed just over half an inch of ice from the outer layers of the samples. And with that, they could now take a look at the middle parts without fear of them having been contaminated. They trusted that their technique was effective as they’d previously tested it out.

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With the outer layers gone, the researchers analyzed the samples. Their work, it seems, had been worth it. The team noted that 33 different viruses lay within the ice cores. Some of these dated back 520 years, while others originated a whopping 15,000 years ago. Of the 33 strains, 28 were completely undocumented.

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One expert was by no means shocked by the results. Chantal Abergel, a specialist associated with the French National Center for Scientific Research, spoke to Vice about how limited human knowledge regarding microorganisms really is. In her words, “We are very far from sampling the entire diversity of viruses on Earth.”

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Millennia-old microorganisms are an excellent way for the scientific community to understand ancient environmental conditions. And this is important in light of the changing climate we’re experiencing today. After all, learning about how the world used to be can help us anticipate changes which might await us in the future.

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And the authors of the study themselves referenced the importance of millennia-old viruses to science. In their words, the study of these microorganisms represents “a first window into viral genomes and their ecology from glacier ice… And emphasizes their likely impact on abundant microbial groups [today].” But, it seems, climate change threatens such samples.

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If the glaciers holding ancient viruses melt, they’ll be lost for the purposes of study. As the researchers noted, “At a minimum, this could lead to the loss of microbial and viral archives that could be diagnostic and informative of past Earth climate regimes.” However, they also had a more troubling thought.

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The scientists wrote, “In a worst-case scenario, this ice melt could release pathogens into the environment.” A scary idea, as the implications of such an event could be significant to humanity. And given the widely accepted degree of human-caused climatic changes that we’re seeing today, this is perhaps something to prepare for.

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Over recent years, the world has seen yearly surface temperatures become higher than at any other point in recorded history. And that’s by no means the only significant shift to be noted by experts. The ocean, too, has warmed, with its levels and amount of salt both also on the rise.

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As the world heats up, glaciers start to melt, leading to an increased volume of water entering the ocean. This has led to a rise in sea levels over the last century or so. A United Nations organization known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, has estimated that over that period, the seas have risen by four to eight inches.

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Of course, the ocean rises and falls as a natural consequence of various processes of the Earth. What’s different in today’s era, though, is the sheer speed with which this is happening. Sea level changes have been occurring much quicker than has been typical throughout the planet’s long existence.

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The impact of these changes could be devastating, according to the calculations of one scientist from Florida International University. Indeed, Bruce Douglas has posited that every time the ocean rises by an inch, a whole eight feet of sandy coastline may be lost. Moreover, salty seawater can then end up mixing with drinkable water sources.

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In 2001 the IPCC suggested that oceans were set to rise dramatically over the next 100 years. Their prediction put forth a figure of anywhere from four to 35 inches. If a rise closer to that latter number was actually to occur, it would be, as Douglas himself phrased it to National Geographic magazine, “an unmitigated disaster.”

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Climate change affects the whole world. But if we focus on the Tibetan Plateau specifically, we can see how it’s been impacted. According to reports, the area has lost around 25 percent of its glaciers over the last 50 years. By the year 2100, the IPCC has implied, this could rise to 66 percent.

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So, even if the threat of the atmosphere becoming contaminated by ancient and unknown viruses doesn’t come to pass, the situation at the Tibetan Plateau remains urgent. The ice is definitely melting, and the consequences could be catastrophic. As such, the study of its remaining glaciers is more vital than ever before.

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