Investigating Life in the Ice

by | 5.14.2013 at 3:08pm
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Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, microbiologists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, are spending a month in Barrow, Alaska studying algae in and below sea ice, and how our warming climate may impact these important organisms. They’re investigating the factors that control the growth of algae inside of sea ice, how these algal communities are connected to other Arctic marine organisms and what happens to the organic matter that builds up inside sea ice. I’ve joined them to document and tell stories about their research, how it’s done, why and what they’re learning.

Barrow, Alaska

Barrow, Alaska

Barrow is the northernmost point in the United States and is situated where the Chukchi Sea meets the Beaufort Sea. Throughout the long winter, these waters are covered with a thick layer of ice. This ice is home to many different microscopic algae, which form the base of the polar food web.

During late winter and spring, large communities of these algae flourish, or bloom, inside and on the undersurface of the 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 Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet, shortening winter and causing pack ice to thin and break up earlier and earlier each year. How will these changes impact the Arctic marine food web? Answering this question and understanding how the ice algae respond to our warming climate will inform resource managers and policymakers, as well as local residents, of how the larger Arctic marine ecosystem may be impacted.

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.

We’re based at the UMIAQ field station in Barrow, which provides logistics 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.

Over the next few weeks we’ll share stories from the ice about our research, the role sea ice algae play in Arctic ecosystems and how that’s changing, and what’s it’s like to live at the top of the planet. And, if we’re lucky, a few pictures of whales and polar bears.

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