BOZEMAN — Montana State University professor John Priscu was recently awarded a prestigious, yearlong fellowship from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, an honor that will facilitate further research into polar ecology in the Himalaya and other extreme terrains.
Priscu, a Montana University System Regents Professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, first visited China in the 1990s to lecture about his work in Antarctica. He is one of the nation’s leading researchers in Arctic biogeochemistry and his 36-year career includes publications in magazines such as Time and Scientific American and academic journals such as Science and Nature, among dozens of others.
“You think of Antarctica and you typically think of this giant, lifeless iceberg,” Priscu said. “It’s pretty hard living on the surface, but underneath it’s not so bad. Beneath the Antarctic ice sheet lies our planet’s largest wetland. It might not have the red-winged blackbirds and the cattails, but it’s permanent water overlying water-saturated sediments, and it’s got bacteria that drive reactions such as methane production, all of which are defining elements of a wetland.”
About a decade ago Priscu began receiving academic manuscripts from colleagues in China that focused on research similar to his own. He formed a partnership of editing and reviewing those manuscripts for publication. Then in 2011 he received an email from Yongqin Liu at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Tibetan Research Institute who was interested in pursuing her sabbatical in Priscu’s MSU lab.
Liu spent the 2012-2013 academic year in Bozeman where she and Priscu studied data collected from Himalayan glaciers, examining the climate record contained in ice cores extracted from a depth of about 300 feet.
“The cores act like a time machine, or like the rings of a tree,” Priscu said.
Those 300-foot cores held insights into what those environments were like dating back to around 1959.
DNA sequences of bacteria showed that before 1990 bacteria in the northern Himalaya had origins from windblown soils in eastern Europe, whereas those in the southern Himalaya originated from the marine waters of the Bay of Bengal and were carried to the mountains via Asian monsoons.
To Priscu’s and Liu’s surprise, after 1990 the bacteria in the southern Himalaya began to look more similar to those from the soils of eastern Europe, a trend that was related to increases in soot, or black carbon, deposited on the glacial surfaces, drawing a connection between the industrialization of western China and the dynamics of Himalayan glaciers.
“Glaciers in the Himalaya represent the third largest reservoir of ice on our planet,” Priscu said. “Glacier-fed rivers originating from the Himalayan mountain ranges influence the lives of about 40% of the world’s population. These glaciers are melting faster than the polar ice sheets due to factors like industrialization and climate warming.”
His work with Liu is providing important new insights into the fate of Himalayan glaciers.
After publishing a series of papers with Liu and further collaboration with other members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Priscu began traveling to Xinjaing in northwest China and to Tibet to conduct research on mountain glaciers and give lectures. He recently hosted a doctoral student from the Tibetan Research Institute and continues to collaborate with Liu, head of her own laboratory in China. They have recently worked together on Priscu’s field teams to study icy systems in Antarctica and Alaska.
This winter Priscu was awarded the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Presidential Fellowship for Distinguished Scientists for 2020. The fellowship will take Priscu, who routinely visits five or six continents each year, on an extended trip through China this summer. He will give a series of lectures in Beijing, Nanjing and Lanzhou in northwestern China, followed by conducting hands-on research on glaciers around 18,000 feet above sea level in the Tangula Mountains in Tibet. The study will focus on microbial communities that live in sediments on the surface of those glaciers and examine the roles that these microbes play in glacial chemistry and the absorption of solar radiation, the latter of which can enhance surface melting.
For Priscu, it will be the continuation of more than 36 years of international teamwork, discovery and scientific advancement.
“I have been lucky to have received funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA to study the geobiology of ice in Greenland, Antarctica, Alaska and the icy worlds in the outer solar system,” Priscu said. “I have been equally lucky to work with Dr. Liu and other scientists from the Chinese Academies. Working with my Chinese colleagues is inspiring. Science is clearly an international language that has few intellectual boundaries.”