Thin ice: the way to a new arctic ecosystem?

By March 11, 2013 Ocean News

Climate Change campaigns can be found around the web where they are designed to help stop the melting of ice through major changes in the way we live. Is not only because of the famous drilling projects, but because of the ice itself. Now, the arctic ice is thinner than ever! And this is not only a problem for polar bears, seals, or other animals that can break their platforms or get isolated. Thin ice is changing the ecosystem more deeply than just a few large species.


During 2012, with the ice melting at record highs, scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany started to explore these regions with ROVs. And they discovered something disturbing: the seafloor was green. The thinning ice was speeding up algal growth. They found algae growing in the underside of the arctic ice, about 1 meter long (3 feet), and chunks of algae up to 20 inches (50cm) in size covered up to 10% of the muddy bottom. The explanation is pure logic: as the ice goes thinner, the amount of sunlight that can go through it rises.

The algae will sink down to the seabed, and it will alter the food web and the oxygen content of the water. It could change also the amount of carbon and the flux of it between the surface and the seafloor, because these clumps can trap carbon after sinking. All of this will affect the Arctic biodiversity, the problem is that we don’t know how. Usually this area has little nutrients on it, so these changes may modify how the entire ecosystem works. It’s the first time we notice something like this!

Once the clumps fall to the seafloor, up to 4,500m (14,700 feet) depth, they are eaten by bottom feeders, and then the bacteria decompose the rest (you can see a sea cucumber eating algae on the picture below). But at the surface, the Arctic can run out of nutrients, because all of them will be consumed by the algal bloom.

sea cucumber

This could be just the first of a number of studies about the Arctic seafloor, since the seasonal conditions allow for easier sampling! But what do we have to expect from now on?

Is this change something casual or are we seeing the beginning of the new Arctic?

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