EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

A better appreciation of glacial floodplain morphodynamics reveals that disturbances are not spatially homogenous: implications for biofilm development

Matteo Roncoroni, Mélanie Clémençon, and Stuart Lane
Matteo Roncoroni et al.
  • University of Lausanne, Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, Lausanne, Switzerland (

Recent decades have seen worldwide glacier retreat that has resulted in a significant increase in the spatial extent of proglacial margins. Such margins, by switching from being ice-covered to light-exposed, are open to potential colonization by new organisms. However, ecological succession in glacial forefields may be slowed or even precluded by the highly unstable nature of these environments and habitability might be highly variable both in time and in space.

Discharge-related processes are likely to dominate forefields, in particular during the melt season. Discharge defines the shear forces acting upon the streambed, and ultimately bed and suspended loads and the rate of morphodynamic change through the floodplains. Evidence suggests that during the melt season glacial streams continuously rework their accommodation spaces by erosion and deposition processes, resulting in low rates of environmental stability. This means that benthic organisms, such as biofilms, inhabiting those streams may continuously be under pressure.

Biofilms are surface-attached communities composed of microorganisms, they are at the base of instream food webs, and they are involved in multiple ecosystem processes. Nevertheless, their surface-attached nature leads them to be easily removed from their lodging substrates by hydraulic disturbances. Because disturbance-dominated regimes exist during the melt season in glacial streams, it should be expected that biofilms might not be able to develop or persist during the melt season. A core idea in glacial stream ecology is that biomass, either of biofilms but also of macrozoobenthos, increases by moving away from the glacial snout, but also that it fluctuates during the year and reaches its highest mass during windows of opportunity (i.e., spring and fall). Even though this paradigm might hold, it does not fully capture the complexity of glacial floodplain morphodynamics, and the possibility that some stable zones exist even in summer. This explains why biofilms are able to develop in summer, and why well-developed biofilms can be found even close to the glacier snouts during the melt season.

In this paper, we present the first insights about the reasons why biofilms can develop in glacial floodplains during the melt season and, in particular, how important stable zones are for biofilm development. Through classical morphological and morphodynamic analysis, we seek to demonstrate that disturbances are not spatially homogenous, and geomorphic processes can shape the environment creating hot spot for biota. In this view, we argue that floodplain terraces, either permanent or temporary, play a crucial role in defining where biofilms – and consequently organisms that feed on them – settle, develop and grow.

How to cite: Roncoroni, M., Clémençon, M., and Lane, S.: A better appreciation of glacial floodplain morphodynamics reveals that disturbances are not spatially homogenous: implications for biofilm development, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-5216,, 2020


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