Unexpected Find: ‘Rainforest’ of Phytoplankton Growth in the Arctic Ocean

Article written: 7 Jun , 2012
Updated: 23 Dec , 2015
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Imagine finding a rainforest in the middle of a desert. That is how NASA scientists are equating a new biological discovery in Arctic Ocean. Microscopic plants called phytoplankton are actively growing under the thinning Arctic ice. In fact, the scientists say the phytoplankton growth in the Arctic may now be richer than any other ocean region on Earth. The finding reveals a new consequence of the Arctic’s warming climate, and gives researchers an important clue to understanding the impacts of a changing climate and environment on the Arctic Ocean and its ecology.

“If someone had asked me before the expedition whether we would see under-ice blooms, I would have told them it was impossible,” said Kevin Arrigo of Stanford University, leader of the ICESCAPE mission and lead author of the new study. “This discovery was a complete surprise.”

ICESCAPE, stand for Impacts of Climate on EcoSystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment and in 2010 and 2011, scientists explored Arctic waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas along Alaska’s western and northern coasts onboard a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker. The researchers drilled down through three-foot thick sea ice to study impacts of environmental variability and change in the Arctic on the ocean biology, ecology and biogeochemistry.

The researchers found the phytoplankton were extremely active, doubling in number more than once a day. Conversely, blooms in open waters grow at a much slower rate, doubling in two to three days. These growth rates are among the highest ever measured for polar waters.

Phytoplankton were thought to grow in the Arctic Ocean only after sea ice had retreated for the summer.

In July of 2011 the researchers observed blooms beneath the ice that extended from the sea-ice edge to 72 miles into the ice pack. Ocean current data revealed that these blooms developed under the ice and had not drifted there from open water, where phytoplankton concentrations can be high.

Previously, it was thought that sea ice blocked most sunlight needed for phytoplankton growth. Scientists now think that the thinning Arctic ice is allowing sunlight to reach the waters under the sea ice, spurring plant blooms where they had never been observed. The findings were published today in the journal Science.

Phytoplankton is the base of the marine food chain and they consume large amounts of carbon dioxide. Scientists will have to reassess the amount of carbon dioxide entering the Arctic Ocean through biological activity if the under-ice blooms turn out to be common.

“At this point we don’t know whether these rich phytoplankton blooms have been happening in the Arctic for a long time and we just haven’t observed them before,” Arrigo said. “These blooms could become more widespread in the future, however, if the Arctic sea ice cover continues to thin.”

The discovery of these previously unknown under-ice blooms also has implications for the broader Arctic ecosystem, including migratory species such as whales and birds. Phytoplankton are eaten by small ocean animals, which are eaten by larger fish and ocean animals. A change in the timeline of the blooms can cause disruptions for larger animals that feed either on phytoplankton or on the creatures that eat these microorganisms.

“It could make it harder and harder for migratory species to time their life cycles to be in the Arctic when the bloom is at its peak,” Arrigo said. “If their food supply is coming earlier, they might be missing the boat.”

The scientists said the discovery also may have major implications for the global carbon cycle and the ocean’s energy balance, and they may need to revise their understanding of the ecology of the Arctic and the region’s role in the Earth system.

You can see more images from the ICESCAPE expedition on NASA Goddard’s Flickr page.

The team’s paper: K.R. Arrigo et al. Massive phytoplankton blooms under Arctic sea ice. Science. doi:10.1126/science.1215065.

Source: NASA

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9 Responses

  1. I wonder if anyone is looking into the efficiency of photosynthesis in this phytoplankton. Maybe it has evolved something new.

    • That’s what I was thinking – that this particular phytoplankton has figured out the trick.

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    • Torbj√∂rn Larsson says

      I was more thinking how this ties in with recent discoveries how the underside of ice floats are bacterial heaven as well: lots of nutrients from within the ice and protection.

      Less likely that something new evolved than what the article describes, that it could always been there or is promoted by a change in environment. But evolution happens and it is a really good idea that that should be checked as well!

  2. Member
    Aqua4U says

    How very interesting… I will hope that the migratory animals can take advantage of this, or have taken advantage of this in the past. If this is an entirely new phenomena it may of course have dire unknown/unforeseen consequences? YIKES!

    The summer upwelling in the Arctic attracts MOST of the remaining salmonid, herring and cod, whales, and many other sea going mammals and is a MAJOR factor. Am hoping for the best but expecting?

    Please continue following this and like stories.

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  3. Dampe says

    Is this a similar process of what occurs when the planet is coming out of an ice age?

  4. Peristroika says

    Looks like my pool when I forget to add the chemicals…maybe we should add up all the pools at abandoned homes in the States! Mucho phyto!

  5. While disrupting migratory cycles is bad, consuming large amounts of carbon dioxide is good. The planet’s had eons of dealing with volcanoes spewing out large amounts of carbon dioxide and other disasters. This may be a counter measure that was developed and might help “right the balance”.

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