Disappearing Sea Ice Is Changing The Whole Ecosystem Of The Arctic Ocean

Disappearing Sea Ice Is Changing The Whole Ecosystem Of The Arctic Ocean outdoorsman / shutterstock

I drafted this while looking north over the frozen Lincoln Sea, at the northernmost tip of Ellesmere Island in Canada. I was at Alert, a Canadian Forces Station which, at 82°N, is the most northerly permanently inhabited place on Earth. Just 815km away, across the Arctic Ocean, lay the North Pole.

It was May, and the sea should have still been frozen, but this year the bridge of sea ice between Ellesmere and Greenland broke up early, and Arctic ice began flowing down the narrow Nares Channel and south into Baffin Bay. All across the Arctic Ocean, the amount and persistence of sea ice is declining – September ice cover has fallen around 30% since 1980.

Disappearing Sea Ice Is Changing The Whole Ecosystem Of The Arctic Ocean Alert (red dot) is at the northern end of Canada’s most northerly island. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and images of polar bears on small ice floes capture the imagination. But those images represent (excusing the pun) only the tip of the iceberg – the consequences of ice loss are profound and start from the very bottom of the food chain, in the microbial processes that drive the biology of the ocean.

Arctic food chains sometimes start in sea ice

Sea ice forms when seawater temperature falls below -1.8℃. As the ice crystals form, salt is forced out and ice brines and other dissolved constituents become trapped in a honeycomb of small channels in the ice. Cold salty water draining from the ice also sinks deep to the bottom of the oceans and drives water circulation across the globe.

As the air grows colder, the ice thickens downwards and, in the brine channels and across the ice bottom, specialised algae and bacteria grow. When sunlight returns to the Arctic in the spring and penetrates through the ice (which is rarely more than a few metres thick) these ice-algal communities start to photosynthesise, producing algal biomass and abundant dissolved organic matter.

Disappearing Sea Ice Is Changing The Whole Ecosystem Of The Arctic Ocean Ice algae growing on the bottom of an ice core. Graham Underwood, Author provided

This feeds a wide range of microscopic creatures known as zooplankton, which graze across the bottom of the ice. These zooplankton in turn feed larger animals and drive the food chain throughout spring.

When the ice melts more of this material flows out into the seas, providing more food resources at the bottom of food chains. In a recent study published in Nature Climate Change, colleagues and I showed how the different components of this organic matter derived from ice-algae are used by different species of bacteria and at different rates in underlying seawater, so that more melting ice will change the patterns of organic matter turnover in surface waters during spring.

Disappearing Sea Ice Is Changing The Whole Ecosystem Of The Arctic Ocean Ice-algae diatoms, right at the bottom of the Arctic food chain. Graham Underwood, Author provided

Different food chains may develop

Not all sea ice melts each summer – or at least it didn’t. Multi-year ice can go through a number of years of melting and growing, getting thicker and more structurally complex. But, over time, this multi-year ice has become rarer. In the 1980s, around one-third of the Arctic’s ice cover was more than four years old – today, such ice is almost nonexistent. Instead, more first-year ice will form and completely melt each year, providing new food inputs into areas of ocean that were previously permanently covered in ice.

This has significant consequences. Less ice cover in summer means more open ocean water, which – as it is darker – absorbs more sunlight and heat, making it harder to freeze in the autumn. Open water also means the wind can stir up the sea and slow the process of refreezing. More open water in summer will change the plankton communities, and then the animals that feed on them.

Some species are moving north. Already the Barents Sea between Norway and Svalbard is now rarely covered in ice in winter – and North Atlantic species such as cod and top predators such as orca are moving in. Specialist species that rely on ice such as polar bears, ringed seals, walrus and Arctic cod are losing their habitats, while non-indigenous species are expanding their range.

Disappearing Sea Ice Is Changing The Whole Ecosystem Of The Arctic Ocean The author, at 82ºN. Graham Underwood, Author provided

For some, a warmer Arctic brings opportunities. Reduced ice cover means ships can use the north-east and north-west passages, significantly shortening journey times between the Atlantic and the Pacific. New fisheries may develop, and less ice means access to oil and gas resources becomes possible.

But these benefits to some, come at potentially huge costs. In addition to the changes in the ocean, a warmer Arctic could disrupt ocean circulation and global weather systems, while permafrost will continue to thaw, potentially releasing greenhouse gases currently locked up in frozen soils.

A whole ecosystem, rich in specialist species – many barely studied – is changing before our eyes. The Arctic is a beautiful and harsh place, posing serious logistical challenges for scientific investigation. But even there, on the top of the world, far from centres of human population, our impact is evident.

About The Author

Graham J. C. Underwood, Professor of Marine and Freshwater Biology, University of Essex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities

by Peter Plastrik , John Cleveland
1610918495The future of our cities is not what it used to be. The modern-city model that took hold globally in the twentieth century has outlived its usefulness. It cannot solve the problems it helped to create—especially global warming. Fortunately, a new model for urban development is emerging in cities to aggressively tackle the realities of climate change. It transforms the way cities design and use physical space, generate economic wealth, consume and dispose of resources, exploit and sustain the natural ecosystems, and prepare for the future. Available On Amazon

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert
1250062187Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Available On Amazon

Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats

by Gwynne Dyer
1851687181Waves of climate refugees. Dozens of failed states. All-out war. From one of the world’s great geopolitical analysts comes a terrifying glimpse of the strategic realities of the near future, when climate change drives the world’s powers towards the cut-throat politics of survival. Prescient and unflinching, Climate Wars will be one of the most important books of the coming years. Read it and find out what we’re heading for. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
by Johnna Crider
Plains, Georgia, is a small town that is just south of Columbus, Macon, and Atlanta and north of Albany. It is the…
Majority of US Adults Believe Climate Change Is Most Important Issue Today
by American Psychological Association
As the effects of climate change become more evident, more than half of U.S. adults (56%) say climate change is the…
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
by Mangulina Jan Fichtner, et al
A silent revolution is happening in investing. It is a paradigm shift that will have a profound impact on corporations,…

LATEST ARTICLES

Heatwaves Too Hot And Wet For Human Life Are Here
Heatwaves Too Hot And Wet For Human Life Are Here Now
by Tim Radford
Lethal heatwaves carrying air turned too hot and wet to survive are a threat which has arrived, thanks to climate…
How Dangerous Is Low-level Radiation To Children?
How Dangerous Is Low-level Radiation To Children?
by Paul Brown
A rethink on the risks of low-level radiation would imperil the nuclear industry’s future − perhaps why there’s never…
What We Do Now Could Change Earth's Trajectory
What We Do Now Could Change Earth's Trajectory
by Pep Canadell, et al
The numbers of people cycling and walking in public spaces during COVID-19 has skyrocketed.
Marine Heatwaves Spell Trouble For Tropical Reef Fish — Even Before Corals Die
Marine Heatwaves Spell Trouble For Tropical Reef Fish — Even Before Corals Die
by Jennifer M.T. Magel and Julia K. Baum
Despite the many challenges facing the world’s oceans today, coral reefs remain strongholds of marine biodiversity.
Warnings of Worse-Than-Usual Hurricane Season Point to Trouble Ahead
Warnings of Worse-Than-Usual Hurricane Season Point to Trouble Ahead
by Eoin Higgins
Hurricane season is about to start and its risks will only grow and potentially compound any impacts from the pandemic.
Australia, It's Time To Talk About Our Water Emergency
Australia, It's Time To Talk About Our Water Emergency
by Quentin Grafton et al
There’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.
Fossil Fuels Are Heading Down, But Not Yet Out
Fossil Fuels Are Heading Down, But Not Yet Out
by Kieran Cooke
Renewable energy is making rapid inroads into the market, but fossil fuels still wield enormous global influence.
Human Action Will Decide How Much Sea Levels Rise
Human Action Will Decide How Much Sea Levels Rise
by Tim Radford
Sea levels will go on rising, because of human action. By how much, though, depends on what humans do next.