Arctic Sea Ice Ecology
I returned to New York on Monday, but Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack remain working in Barrow, Alaska for another week. They’ll continue to collect data and samples in a race against deteriorating Arctic sea ice conditions as the onset of summer causes the ice to thin and break up. Even in the two weeks I stayed in Barrow the ice changed dramatically, shifting from a snow-covered ice pack to a nearly snow-free ice pack, covered in cracks and increasingly large melt ponds. An animation from the May 23 Barrow sea ice radar reveals just how quickly shorefast sea ice can change. Soon the ice will be deemed unsafe for travel by snow machine and spring fieldwork conducted on the ice will end.
Our team’s research in Barrow is just one part in the long process of studying and answering questions about algae growing in and under Arctic sea ice and its role in the marine ecosystem. And, it’s a process that does not necessarily have a defined end — investigating the natural world always leads to more questions. From fieldwork, where observations are made and data gathered, new questions arise, new hypotheses are put forward and new ways of collecting data are developed. This work leads to further experiments where new data and samples are collected, observations are made, analyses performed and results interpreted. Some of the findings will challenge existing hypotheses, leading to their modification, which starts the research process over again.
Fieldwork gives scientists the opportunity to observe systems in a holistic way, leading to new insight and further research questions; each piece of data causes a rethinking of ideas and expectations for future results. “Fieldwork is inspiring and it’s critical to the creative process for environmental science because you often see things that you don’t necessarily see in your data,” said Andy. “There are subtleties and patterns that you can pick on if you pay attention to observe the natural world. You can’t do that in the lab or by looking at numbers.”
Some people may be disappointed to learn that we don’t have many immediate answers about sea ice algae and the Arctic ecosystem based on our month of Barrow fieldwork. But, scientists don’t set out to study things that are already understood or to answer questions that already have answers, and it takes time to unravel Earth’s mysteries. On this trip, project scientists discovered and collected lots of algae, observed novel behavior by marine organisms in the water column and on the seafloor, and gathered lots of data. The next steps in this project are to analyze the samples and data collected in Barrow, interpret these, write up findings and report these in journals and at scientific meetings. And, in 2014, Andy and Craig will return to Barrow to continue their study of sea ice algae, armed with new understanding of the algae, as well as new research questions to explore.
The goal of our project is to understand how ice algae functions and its role in the marine ecosystem, but we’ve received many questions about how ice algae, the residents of Barrow and the rest of life in the Arctic will be affected by a climate that is undoubtedly and irrevocably changing. The answer is that we don’t know, but our research may contribute to future understanding of these issues. Though the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else on the planet, with temperature increasing and ice volume decreasing, it is still one of the least explored places on Earth. In order to know how climate change will impact this region, the basic oceanographic and ecological processes must first be understood.
As our project progresses, we’ll continue to provide updates and look forward to sharing a video of our time in Barrow that’s being produced by our friends at Climate Science TV. For more information on this research project, visit http://lifeintheice.wordpress.com. Our colleagues at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory also travel the world exploring our planet; to keep up with more interesting Earth science research and reports from the field, follow Lamont-Doherty on Twitter and Facebook.
And thanks to everyone who followed our expedition, we enjoyed sharing it with you!
It’s near midnight and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory researchers Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, and Arizona State’s Kyle Kinzler are gathered around a table in their lab at the Barrow Arctic Research Consortium discussing the best way to catch an isopod. When scientists do fieldwork, they enter into it with specific questions and science goals in mind, but one of the joys of exploring the world through scientific research is solving challenges and devising new ways to collect data.
Meet Brinson. He’s a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) along on our Arctic expedition and named in honor of a foundation that provided Andy funding to build him. Brinson, originally designed and built by engineer Bob Martin, and modified by Andy, is the result of an idea that evolved over several years of Arctic fieldwork.
“We were deploying just this ice fishing camera, but were frustrated by the fact that there was always something just beyond our range that we wanted to see,” said Andy. “So we wanted mobility and once we got that we were frustrated by the fact that we didn’t know how big things were, and that’s when we decided we needed the laser pointers to provide scale. So Brinson has been a multi-step evolution into a simple, but well-equipped ROV.”
Brinson now consists of a GoPro camera and a standard ice fishing camera attached to a frame made of PVC pipe that can be lowered into a hole in the ice. On the ice surface, the ice fishing camera’s live video feed shows what Brinson sees as he travels through the water. Brinson is equipped with small bilge pumps that act as motors, which enable him to be maneuvered forward, up, down and side to side via his tethered remote control. When Brinson is below the ice, Craig monitors the video feed and describes to Andy what he sees on the screen. When something of interest appears, Craig tells Andy which way to maneuver Brinson, so they can continue to get footage of the organism.
Brinson recently saw small crustaceans called isopods roaming around the ocean floor. Andy and Craig were excited about this find and very curious to learn more about what isopods might eat and their role may be in Arctic the marine food web. Once Brinson, and Andy and Craig, saw the isopods, it was decided that our team should catch some, but we had no trap or means of doing so.
Scientists need to bring absolutely everything they need, and think they might need, with them on research expeditions, especially those to remote areas like Alaska’s North Slope. So, when, for example, you decide you must build an isopod trap late at night in Barrow, you’re pretty much limited to what you have on hand: a plastic buckets, plastic window screening, electrical tape, rocks, string.
With these materials, a little ingenuity and their limited knowledge of isopod behavior, Craig and Kyle constructed isopod traps. The guys hypothesized that isopods might like chicken, so baited their traps with chicken bones saved from our dinner. The traps were attached to eight meters of string and dropped to the sea floor. Kyle’s trap sat overnight and caught two isopods; Craig’s trap sat on the ocean bottom for several days and contained at least 20 isopods when it was pulled up.
The beauty of the isopod traps is that they worked and project scientists will get valuable data about the Arctic marine food web as a result. “From the underwater videos shot by Brinson, it looks like the activity of the isopods increases after the ice algae exports,” Andy explained. “We think there’s a plausible connection there: the ice algae could be a food source for isopods. We never would have posed that as a hypothesis unless we had the opportunity to observe them and make these connections.”
Fieldwork is, in part, a pattern of observing and questioning, and responding to these with new theories, methods and experiments. It’s also part of a larger creative process that involves improvisation and unconventional thinking. Said Andy, “In the field, we make a lot of stuff out of duct tape and epoxy.”
One of the goals of Andy Juhl’s and Craig Aumack’s Arctic research is to determine the role of ice algae as a source of nutrition for food webs existing in the water column and at the bottom of the Arctic ocean. During their fieldwork these Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists are deploying a plankton net, a common tool used by ocean scientists to catch tiny marine plants and animals in the water column, to collect live plankton for identification and examination in the lab. They’re hoping to determine the different kinds of organisms active in this part of the Arctic Ocean and their food web feeding connections, or who’s eating whom by testing the organisms to see if they contain algae in their guts and muscle tissues.
This information is important because it will provide a baseline understanding of the connection between the algal community in the sea ice and the underlying ecosystem, and how it functions. Once this is understood, scientists may be able to better understand and predict changes that could occur in the marine food web as Arctic snow and ice cover changes.
A few days ago we caught the comb jellies in this video near shore at a depth of about four meters. Though comb jellies have the same type of gelatinous body as a jellyfish, they belong to a completely different phylum called ctenophores. Known for being vicious carnivorous predators, ctenophores use rows of comb-like cilia to propel themselves through the top of the water column and prey on smaller organisms, such as zooplankton. Ctenophores are found throughout the world’s oceans, including Arctic waters — quite a few of appeared in the holes we’ve bored into the ice this week.
These two comb jellies were filmed under a microscope in our lab. Each one is just a few millimeters long, though they can grow to be about 10 cm, sometimes larger. You can also see small copepods, a type of zooplankton and favorite food of ctenophores, zipping around the screen. Seeing a lot of ctenophores in the upper water column is a good indicator that they are feeding extensively on copepod larvae, who in turn are feeding on ice algae. This is an example of a few of the connections that make up the foundation of the food web in this fragile, yet biologically productive ecosystem.
On Wednesday Andy and Craig answered responded to questions about their research during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. While the event is over, the session remains on Reddit and we encourage you to check it out to learn about our research and life in Barrow, Alaska.