Christopher Schadt, now of the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and a former graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said "the discovery should help scientists gain greater insight into decomposition rates, carbon cycles and the roles of individual fungi in those processes." Surprisingly, the number of active microorganisms in tundra soils, for at least the top 10 centimeters, (about four inches) peaks when the soils are covered with snow. Schadt and colleagues performed their research at the Niwot Ridge, Colo., LTER site. Niwot Ridge is located some 12,000 feet atop the Rocky Mountains.
"The finding that microorganisms are interacting with tundra soils to a great extent highlights the important role of the snowpack in creating a unique and crucial environment in tundra ecosystems in Colorado and likely in other locations that are covered with snow for long periods of time in winter," said Henry Gholz, LTER program director at NSF.
Metabolism of snow-covered microbes is an important biogeochemical "sink," or way of storing, nitrogen. "The subsequent release in spring of nitrogen from the microbes' metabolism is a major contributor to the relatively high productivity during the short growing season in the tundra," said Steven Schmidt of the University of Colorado at Boulder, a co-author of the Science paper, and leader of the research team.