Investigating Life in the Ice

Melting, changing, thinning, cracking: a scan of the news headlines about the top of our planet indicate that something there is amiss.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth, leading to numerous changes in the region, most noticeably, a sharp decline in the amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean. The decrease in ice will have serious consequences for the entire Arctic ecosystem, including plants, animals and the people who live there.

Scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory study the oceanography, ecology, geology and climate of Earth’s polar regions; by understanding the basic processes in these places we can better inform future decisions and policy, and prepare for changing conditions.

Two of these scientists, associate research professor Andy Juhl and postdoctoral fellow Craig Aumack, are conducting fieldwork above the Arctic Circle, near the remote community of Barrow, Alaska. Their work is part of a long-term National Science Foundation funded project to investigate the billions of tiny marine organisms living in and below Arctic sea ice. I’ve joined them to document and tell stories about their research, how it’s done, why and what they’re learning.

Arctic Food Web

The Arctic food web. Our team is studying the primary producers (bottom left), or photosynthesizing ice algae.

Microscopic plants, or sea ice algae, are the focus of their research and are an important part of the Arctic marine food web. During late winter and spring, large communities of these algae flourish, or bloom, inside and on the undersurface of Arctic sea ice. As the ice melts, algae are released into the nutrient rich waters, feeding plankton and higher trophic levels, including fish, whales and seals. The thickness of sea ice and the associated snow cover, as well as the timing of sea ice melt in spring and freeze in autumn, may all affect the productivity of the ice algae community and, consequently, the organisms that feed on them, causing dramatic changes in marine life.

We’re based at the UMIAQ field station in Barrow, which provides logistical support for NSF-funded scientists conducting research in the area. From Barrow, we’ll travel across the sea ice by snowmobile to nearby Point Barrow, where we’ll establish sampling stations and drill and remove cores of ice. Samples will be analyzed back in the lab to investigate the flux of the algal organisms and organic matter from the sea ice to the water column during the spring melt.

Andy and Craig hope to learn how our fast-warming climate and the resulting dissipation of sea ice affect the entire marine food web. This knowledge is essential to assessing the value of the ice community in the Arctic and is paramount to predicting ecosystem wide consequences to rapidly changing Arctic environments.

How has the amount of Arctic sea ice changed? This NOAA video shows the Arctic’s 2012 record-breaking ice loss; follow this blog for more updates from the Arctic May 14-26.

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