By Daniela Brik
Quito, May 4 (EFE).- An investigation seeking to determine if radiation and other contaminating agents could be contributing to glacial melting has resulted in the discovery of new species in one of Ecuador’s seven glaciers.
The find was made by a team from the Universidad Internacional SEK (UISEK) in Quito in collaboration with Spain’s University of Leon, who since 2016 have been researching watersheds and glaciers using diatoms, microscopic algae that have a structure made of silica and a glass skeleton, both of which are considered to be good indicators of water quality.
The study – “Biotic water quality index for Ecuador using diatoms as bio-indicators” – is a pioneering work in the Andean country because it uses these indicators in glaciers, the research director, Susana Chamorro, a lecturer at UISEK’s Environmental Engineering and Sciences Department, said.
“We wanted to know what’s happening in Ecuador’s glaciers working with cryoconites, which are like ponds that form inside glaciers,” she told EFE.
The glaciers play a fundamental role in supplying water for the country and for the greater Amazon River basin.
They are exposed to numerous contaminating agents like dust deposits – which are generally volcanic – which accumulate and become a source for elevated radiation found in small ponds known as cryoconites, in the sediments of which the unicellular algae grow.
Studies on Antarctic glaciers have revealed that these sediments accelerate glacial melting, which led the researchers to inquire whether these conditions were also present in Ecuador’s seven large glaciers, one of the study’s main hypotheses.
The extant literature on glaciers indicates that under extreme conditions there is not much life there, something that the study in Ecuador has refuted.
“We’ve broken that paradigm. There’s life in our glaciers – more than is found in other similar natural conditions or ecosystems.
At present, on the Antisana volcano, rising 5,700 meters (18,700 feet) above sea level, the researchers have found “new species of diatoms,” the study chief said.
Located in Ecuador’s Cordillera Real mountain chain, Antisana is a potentially active volcano and was the first location where new species of algae were found, the description of which will appear in a study to be published in the near future.
The team is also analyzing the Cotopaxi volcano, 5,900 meters high, although slightly different conditions are present there.
“They are ecosystems that have not been studied and, in the end, we’re going to find new species,” Chamorro said, emphasizing the specific conditions that prevail in glaciers found in tropical latitudes, where there are few marked seasonal changes.
Ecuador has seven glaciers: Antisana, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe, the Ilinizas (north and south), El Altar and Carihuairazo, all of which are located in volcanic craters.
The scientific team wants to study all seven by 2023 and produce a study that can provide a tool for improving Ecuador’s water management.
Another line of research is to determine whether the presence of cryoconites helps to form glaciers.
“It’s necessary to get to know each of the glaciers to know what role the cryoconites play, whether there’s any relationship among radiation, climate change and the glaciers,” Chamorro said.
Meanwhile, the dust grains that have been found in the glacial ponds are mainly volcanic and rather thick, but that has not hindered new species from living there.
Among the diatoms found in Antisama, scientists have particularly noted some similar to oceanic algae, albeit thriving in a freshwater ecosystem, where more than 1,000 individual diatoms have been found.