NOTE: This is a guest post from Sarah Bedolfe, Coordinator of Marine Research for One World One Ocean.
Last July, scientists happened upon a massive phytoplankton bloom in the Arctic, like none seen before. It covered 100 km (62 miles) and was dense enough to make the water green and murky — it contained four times as much phytoplankton as neighboring areas.
One scientist said it was like “finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert,” according to CNN.
“Suddenly, the fluorometer went nuts. We thought there was something wrong with the instrument,” Kevin Arrigo, leader of the study, was quoted in a Stanford News article, in regard to the fluorescence-measuring device used to estimate the algal content of water.
The bloom shocked scientists because it was growing under thick sea ice, where sunlight is limited. Algae blooms only happen when conditions are ideal: upwelling brings nutrients near the surface, where they meet abundant sunlight. A massive bloom in the dark, under the ice, is a lot like a polar bear cub getting fat on a diet of nothing.
The discovery in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska and Russia, was documented this month in Science, and is getting attention because the microscopic algae does photosynthesis and provides the basic food that other organisms all the way up the food web depend on. It also produces around 50% of our planet’s oxygen.
Researchers realized the bloom happened because the sea ice, instead of blocking sunlight like before, is melting and getting thinner, and the melt pools on the surface actually magnify sunlight. This creates conditions more favorable for algae than areas that have no ice cover, reversing what was previously thought, and opening many questions about how Arctic ecosystems work, and how melting ice will change that.
Last winter scientists discovered that tiny zooplankton, animals which are fed on by everything from Arctic Cod to right whales, are also much more active than previously thought in the brutally cold Arctic winter. These developments illustrate how many significant discoveries are still to be made in the Arctic, and how important it is to fund research there.
You can support the efforts of One World One Ocean and their partners working to protect the Arctic here.
One World One Ocean is a campaign using media across all platforms from IMAX to iPhone, to inspire people to protect the ocean. Sarah Bedolfe is Coordinator of Marine Research for One World One Ocean, a has conducted first hand research on marine ecosystems as a certified scuba diver.
Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.