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Summary

Uncertainty surrounds estimates of microbial cell and organic detritus fluxes from glacier surfaces. Here, we present the first enumeration of biological particles draining from a supraglacial catchment, on Midtre Lovénbreen (Svalbard) over 36 days. A stream cell flux of 1.08 × 107 cells m−2 h−1 was found, with strong inverse, non-linear associations between water discharge and biological particle concentrations. Over the study period, a significant decrease in cell-like particles exhibiting 530 nm autofluorescence was noted. The observed total fluvial export of ∼ 7.5 × 1014 cells equates to 15.1–72.7 g C, and a large proportion of these cells were small (< 0.5 μm in diameter). Differences between the observed fluvial export and inputs from ice-melt and aeolian deposition were marked: results indicate an apparent storage rate of 8.83 × 107 cells m−2 h−1. Analysis of surface ice cores revealed cell concentrations comparable to previous studies (6 × 104 cells ml−1) but, critically, showed no variation with depth in the uppermost 1 m. The physical retention and growth of particulates at glacier surfaces has two implications: to contribute to ice mass thinning through feedbacks altering surface albedo, and to potentially seed recently deglaciated terrain with cells, genes and labile organic matter. This highlights the merit of further study into glacier surface hydraulics and biological processes.