Des solutions pour la planète

Joseph Cook, The living ice hunter

Mapping and analysing the huge microbial system that is colonising glacial expanses and warming the planet, the young scientist’s research has attracted worldwide attention.

By Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in October 2020icon-clockTime to read: 2min 58s

Travelling through vast frozen expanses, scouring the dark holes that punctuate their surface, and identifying the stained patches that are flourishing there with drones is Joseph Cook’s dream life. Born in 1986, this young British scientist fascinated by glacial microbiology has become a world-renowned specialist. He has a clear ambition: to understand how billions of tiny living creatures packed together in the two upper centimetres of the ice shape its topography and accelerate climate change.

And yet, the existence of this life on the ice has been known about since the end of the 19th century. On an expedition to Greenland in 1870, one explorer in particular – the Finn Adolf E. Nordenskjöld – became interested in the microbial growth blackening the ice and thus altering its ability to reflect light. Very quickly, he came to the conclusion that this phenomenon was accelerating melting. Joseph Cook likes to explain it in simple terms by using the analogy of a black T-shirt, which will store heat. As the ice darkens, its ability to reflect solar energy back into the atmosphere is limited. Dark ice therefore stores more heat and melts more quickly. And the more the ice caps shrink, the warmer the planet gets.

Interconnected microbial mini-cities

Alongside the micro-algae colonising the ice, the surface is also dotted with holes of various diameters and depths. Known as “cryoconite holes”, they are home to microbial habitats that are extremely rich in biodiversity. These living organisms are armed with a dark biological material that hollows out the ice, thus enabling them to form an environment protected from extreme conditions. These holes are interconnected by the melting water that circulates just below the surface of the ice, thus connecting bacterial communities as part of a network of mini-cities.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, the researcher is working “to establish remote detection of life on the ice,” he explains, “in order to map biological darkening from satellites and improve our ability to predict melting.”

But why did he choose to dig into this particular subject so deeply? After all, his physical geography studies at Sheffield University, from where he graduated in 2008, could have taken him elsewhere. “I have always been interested in complex systems and how they emerge. Ice and snow seemed to me to be a relatively blank canvas for such processes to operate on, but they had not been studied in detail. It is an ideal environment for physical and intellectual exploration, and the discoveries have real-world implications because of the climatic links between frozen places and the rest of the world,” explains Joseph Cook. He devoted the thesis of his PhD, obtained in 2012, to this subject before joining the University of Derby in 2013 as a geoscience lecturer. In 2016, Cook re-joined the University of Sheffield as a full-time scientific researcher to devote himself entirely to pursuing his obsession. At the age of 29, he has already undertaken five expeditions to the Arctic, his favourite destination. After applying for the Rolex* Awards in 2016, Cook won the Young Laureate Prize and with it, a dual boost: “The Rolex Award has truly transformed my career and my life. It supported the early development of my work on glacier algae and enabled me to discover a community of inspiring scientists.”

It is an ideal environment for physical and intellectual exploration, and the discoveries have real-world implications because of the climatic links between frozen places and the rest of the world.Joseph Cook

Innovative medical and industrial applications

Backed by this recognition, the glaciologist left to explore the Greenland ice sheet with his colleague Francesco Sauro in 2017. “It has been my most memorable expedition to date”, Cook recalls: “We mapped deep-ice caves, took samples for microbiological experiments, and tested the new technology of underground drones. It was the first time I had experienced real winter storms, camping out at -35 degrees and watching the aurora borealis at night.” After a few months of polar travel, Joseph Cook was happy to return home to England. His home is also his laboratory at the University of Sheffield, where he analyses samples whose properties could have very innovative industrial and medical applications. “It is likely that their genes and the chemical mechanisms they use will be very valuable to humanity, particularly for their resistance to the cold, their novel antibiotic properties, their structures able to absorb pollutants and their light-capturing proteins. Hundreds of end uses are possible,” enthuses Joseph Cook.

With the physique of an actor, ice-blue eyes and a fledgling beard, the young man does not simply walk around in a white coat. He also stars in documentaries shot in Svalbard and Greenland, which he makes to raise awareness. After a test run with Life on Earth’s Cold Shoulder (2014), he shot Ice Alive in 2018, asserting that “the arts can add depth and value to the science of climate change.”

Currently, he is working on the MicroMelt project supported by the British National Environment Research Council, which aims to quantify the transport of microbes from glaciers to oceans. At the same time, he is making progress on AI for Earth, with Microsoft and National Geographic, which aims to develop new software to monitor glacier algae from space. Soon to be a father, Joseph Cook wants to believe that humanity will pull together to meet the challenges of the environmental emergency. He wants to remain optimistic, even if he observes sadly: “As a species, we are currently failing to meet the challenge.”

*Rolex is the exclusive partner of Les Echos Planète

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