Scientists investigate icy streams for survival clues

FURKA, Switzerland, Sept 13 (Reuters) - A team of scientists has embarked on a four-year quest to discover what beyond water the world loses when glaciers melt.

By poring over microorganisms they find in glacier-fed streams, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) hope to better understand how these creatures have adapted to their extreme environments.

"It's time for us to find new ways to face this unprecedented environmental change," said Tom Battin, academic director at EPFL who will coordinate the project and lead the research, speaking to reporters by the Rhone glacier now covered with reflective white sheets to help slow its melting.

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Scientists study glaciers in Furka, Switzerland
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Scientists study glaciers in Furka, Switzerland
A tourist takes a picture in the Ice Cave at the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
General view of the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
A combination of two pictures shows the difference in the amount of ice on the Rhone glacier at the Furkapass, Switzerland September 13, 2018 (top) and July 5, 2008 (below). REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
A combination of two pictures shows the difference in the amount of ice on the Rhone glacier at the Furkapass, Switzerland September 13, 2018 (top) and July 5, 2008 (below). REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Tom Battin of the Alpine and Polar Environment Research Center (Alpole) from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) poses at the start of his project to collects microorganisms from a stream to extract their DNA to better understand how they have adapted to their extreme environment, near the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
A combination of two pictures shows the difference in the amount of ice on the Rhone glacier at the Furkapass, Switzerland September 13, 2018 (top) and September 9, 2009 (below). REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Hannes Peter of the Alpine and Polar Environment Research Center (Alpole) from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) collects microorganisms from a stream to extract their DNA to better understand how they have adapted to their extreme environment, near the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Hannes Peter of the Alpine and Polar Environment Research Center (Alpole) from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) collects microorganisms from a stream to extract their DNA to better understand how they have adapted to their extreme environment, near the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
A combination of two pictures shows the difference in the amount of ice on the Rhone glacier at the Furkapass, Switzerland September 13, 2018 (top) and September 9, 2009 (below). REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Hannes Peter of the Alpine and Polar Environment Research Center (Alpole) from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) collects microorganisms from a stream to extract their DNA to better understand how they have adapted to their extreme environment, near the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Hannes Peter of the Alpine and Polar Environment Research Center (Alpole) from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) collects microorganisms from a stream to extract their DNA to better understand how they have adapted to their extreme environment, near the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Hannes Peter of the Alpine and Polar Environment Research Center (Alpole) from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and a colleague perform analyses after collecting microorganisms from a stream to extract their DNA to better understand how they have adapted to their extreme environment, near the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
A woman poses for a picture outside the Ice Cave at the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Hannes Peter of the Alpine and Polar Environment Research Center (Alpole) from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) stores samples of microorganisms near the Rhone Glacier in Furka, Switzerland, September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
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"What is very important now in science is that we start to work across the boundaries of different disciplines. Too often and too rapidly we go from glacier loss to sea level rise. What happens in between is unknown," he said.

Researchers will travel to the world's largest mountain glacier systems, collecting microorganisms from hundreds of glacier-fed streams and analyzing their genomes. The work will take them to streams in Alaska, the Himalayas, the Andes, Greenland, Scandinavia, Pamir, Kamchatka, Caucasus, New Zealand and the European Alps.

Glaciers and their streams were once abundant, but are vanishing as a result of climate change. Glaciologists predict that half of the small glaciers in Switzerland will disappear within the next 25 years.

The same holds true for their glacier-fed streams and the ecosystems they support.

(Reporting by Denis Balibouse; writing by Michael Shields; Editing by Alison Williams)

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