WASHINGTON: As they punched through three foot thick Arctic ice, a Nasa-sponsored expedition has found waters richer in microscopic marine plants, essential to all sea life, than any other ocean region on Earth.
The finding reveals a new consequence of the Arctic’s warming climate and provides an important clue to understanding the impacts of a changing climate and environment on the Arctic Ocean and its ecology. The discovery was made during a Nasa oceanographic expedition in the summers of 2010 and 2011.
The expedition called ICESCAPE explored Arctic waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas along Alaska’s western and northern coasts onboard a US Coast Guard icebreaker. Using optical technologies, scientists looked at the impacts of environmental variability and change in the Arctic on the ocean biology, ecology and biogeochemistry.
“Part of Nasa’s mission is pioneering scientific discovery, and this is like finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert,” said Paula Bontempi, Nasa’s ocean biology and biogeochemistry program manager in Washington. “We embarked on ICESCAPE to validate our satellite ocean-observing data in an area of the Earth that is very difficult to get to,” Bontempi said.
The microscopic plants, called phytoplankton, are the base of the marine food chain. Phytoplankton was thought to grow in the Arctic Ocean only after sea ice had retreated for the summer. Scientists now think that the thinning Arctic ice is allowing sunlight to reach the waters under the sea ice, catalyzing the plant blooms where they had never been observed.