Marcela Uhlíková • foto: Marie Bulínová, Guillaume Lamarche-Gagnon • 11 May 2020

Ecologist Marek Stibal takes on his biggest challenge yet in Greenland

“I have actually never done anything else,” is how Marek Stibal, who has been studying biological processes in glacial ecosystems for almost 20 years, sums up his career as a scientist. Stibal, from the Faculty of Science at Charles University is, apart from other things, the co-author of a study published in Nature maintaining that in summer periods, the melting Greenland Ice Sheet releases methane.

Scientist Marek StibalFurther research of biological processes under the glacier will be made possible by an ERC CZ Consolidator Grant worth 58 million crowns.

As the scientist himself admits, this will be the greatest challenge he has ever faced. At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to be happy. A boost in funding means he will be able to hire the best possible colleagues for his team. The grant starts on July 1st.

Kilometre-deep boreholes

The project consists of several parts. During the first, six sections of the western edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet will be mapped regarding methane release. In order to be able to answer fundamental questions regarding the release of greenhouse gases, the scientist needs to obtain samples of undisturbed subglacial sediments. It means taking samples not only from easily accessible places along the edges which have been used for research so far, but from places where sediments are not affected, for example, by the presence of oxygen.

“It is this sampling that is potentially going to be the most interesting part of the research,” says Stibal, adding “we will have to get through a layer of ice that is up to a kilometre thick in some places. I admit that, due to the demands of the drilling process, this is where we might wreck it, but we will at least give it a try”. If the scientists succeed in getting the bottom hole samples, the demanding field phase will be followed by laboratory work with incubation experiments and computer modelling.

There is methane under the Greenland glacier – that has been confirmed. Its presence was discovered in 2015 by a team of scientists from eight institutions including Charles University. The concentration of methane dissolved in samples of melted water from the 600 square-kilometre catchment area of the Greenland glacier were measured and its origin analysed. The measured amount of six tons per melting season corresponds to the methane production of a hundred of cattle. The new project should provide deeper insight into how much greenhouse gas could be released from the entire continental ice sheet.

“We want to find out, whether fast glacier melting may contribute to an increase of the concentration of methane in the atmosphere and to the present climate changes”. This is where the microbiologist sees one of the benefits of the research, to which he adds immediately “We’re realists. We already know that there are much more significant anthropogenic methane sources. The amount of methane coming from Greenland’s subglacial ecosystem will probably be neglectable globally, but still, it should not be ignored.”

The team led by Marek Stibal will also be interested in how and when methane appeared under the approximately million-year-old glacier, whether it forms there continuously or whether it is old gas released due to accelerating melting. “I am greatly interested in the microbial processes taking place under the glacier,” he admits.

The international team is being assembled

“It actually does look like a huge pile of money,’ Stibak admits with a smile in an answer to a question about what he is going to do with the 58 million Czech crowns which he is going to obtain from the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports of the Czech Republic based on submitting the project to a tender of the European Research Council. Simple calculations, however, will show us that about a half of the amount will cover the salaries of the team members, including two postdocs, two Ph.D. students, the logistics manager (who will ensure transportation, coordinate field work, etc.) and the project manager responsible for administration.

People will be included in the project gradually, according to the requirements of its structure. The fact that there are not many scientists dealing with the subject of the research implies that the team is probably going to be international. “A substantial part of the grant amount will be required to cover the drilling itself as well as flight hours of helicopter transport,” Stibal says. He made dozens of flights to Greenland, especially during the time he worked in Copenhagen – he would just take his backpack and fly there for a weekend. Naturally, to do science.

A return to science... and the band

Presently, Marek has not seen any glaciers for almost two years. Not that they would lose their charm for him, the reason is much more prosaic – he became a happy father last August and wants to spend as much time as possible with his little boy. “Gradually, I am starting to focus more on science again. What other choice do I have now that the project is here?” he asks. The microbiologist is quite reluctant to speak about his hobby, playing in a band, as he says that he and his fellow musicians are rather lazy, they all have little children, and their plans have also been affected by the coronavirus. This year, they have only met three times in the rehearsal room. “Don’t ask me about the musical style, it is different every time,” Marek laughs, concluding: “I won’t even tell you the band’s name so that you cannot google us.”

Mgr. Marek Stibal, Ph.D.

Marek Stibal is a scientist from the Department of Ecology at the Faculty of Science at Charles University, who defines himself as a microbial ecologist interested in cryospheric ecosystems (especially glaciers). He graduated in biology at the Faculty of Biology (now the Faculty of Science) at the University of South Bohemia and he achieved his doctor’s degree in glacial biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol.

Although his ERC Consolidator project was not funded directly by the ERC, it received the highest evaluation - A - and received the support of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport as a part of ERC CZ program.

ERC grants are awarded by the European Research Council and funded from the EU budget. These are very prestigious grants aimed at supporting excellence in science in all fields. A great emphasis is on entirely new revolutional ideas with the potential of influencing the given field significantly, of extending its boundaries, or even opening new perspectives of research.

Presently, it is possible to apply for 5 types of ERC grants: Starting (early-career researchers), Consolidator (young researchers with their own teams or projects), Advanced (excellent senior researchers), Synergy (groups of 2 to 4 researchers), and Proof-of-Concept (support in the early phase of commercialization of research outputs).

ERC CZ grants are awarded by the Ministry of Education to researchers who have achieved great results in the ERC competitions, but received no EU funding due to a lack of financial means.

Original story at Czech iForum

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