The Edge of Climate Change
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|Rick Pantaleo||June 23rd 2012|
|ICESCAPE team members examine Arctic melt ponds|
(credit NASA GSFC)
NASA has discovered that phytoplankton are much more abundant in Arctic waters than any other ocean region on Earth, which could have a huge impact on our understanding of the region’s ecology. Space agency officials say the revelation is as dramatic and unexpected as finding a rainforest in the middle of a desert.
The microscopic, one-celled aquatic plants are known as essential primary-producers, which form the base of the food chain for sea life. NASA’s ICESCAPE expedition made the discovery after punching through nearly 31 centimeters of thick ice.
Scientists found concentrations of the phytoplankton that were “almost two orders of magnitude greater than any other concentration of phytoplankton ever found on the Earth,” according to Dr. Paula Bontempi, NASA’s Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry program manager.
Like other forms of plant life, phytoplankton need water, nutrients, and sunlight to grow and flourish. NASA researchers think these unexpected concentrations of phytoplankton could be due to Arctic ice melting at a very fast rate. The thinning of the ice, according to Bontempi, causes melt ponds—pools of open water in what is normally solid ice—to form, which allows sunlight to shine through the water.
Since sunlight levels are usually low in the Arctic waters, it may be that “having this blast of sunlight where you didn’t have it before and then all of a sudden the plants just take off,” Bontempi says.
This expedition marks the first time the phenomenon has been observed, so Bontempi and her colleagues don’t know if it’s something that’s been happening every year, or if it is just starting to occur. If this large phytoplankton bloom in the Arctic is a totally new phenomenon, Bontempi says she and her colleagues will have to figure out what it all means.
“This could have huge impacts for our understanding of Arctic ecology and, for that matter, carbon cycling [allows carbon to be recycled and reused] because, as you know, phytoplankton or plants take up carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. So, it’s quite possible that the Arctic carbon cycle models will be impacted as well.”
The large blooms of phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean could also have huge impacts on other forms of life higher up in the food chain, such as fish and polar bears, which feed and depend on the phytoplankton to find their food.
According to Bontempi, it will probably take a few years to do a full analysis of the data gathered over two seasons by the ICESCAPE expedition.
Rick Pantaleo hosts VOA’s “Science World,” from which this article is adapted.