Scientists from Nasa and the University in Stanford have made a stunning discovery: they have found microscopic marine plants called phytoplankton under three-foot thick Arctic ice in the Chukchi sea.
The amazing discovery was made during a scientific expedition called ICESCAPE, or Impacts of Climate on EcoSystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment.
Scientists explored and analysed Arctic waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas along Alaska's western and northern coasts onboard a US Coast Guard icebreaker. They used optical technologies to look at the impacts of environmental variability and change in the Arctic on the ocean biology, ecology and biogeochemistry.
Scientists were stunned to find microscopic marine plants underneath the thick ice.
Earlier, scientists had believed that it is impossible for microscopic marine plants or phytoplankton to grow underneath thick ice because Arctic Ocean sea ice blocked most sunlight needed for phytoplankton growth.
"If someone had asked me before the expedition whether we would see under-ice blooms, I would have told them it was impossible," said Kevin Arrigo, scientist at the Stanford University, in a statement. "This discovery was a complete surprise."
Scientists now believe that the thinning of Arctic ice - due to global warming - is allowing sunlight to reach the waters under the sea ice, catalyzing the plant blooms.
The study has also revealed that the phytoplanktons found underneath the arctic ice were extremely active, doubling in number more than once a day. Normally, phytoplanktons blooms in open waters grow at a much slower rate, doubling in two to three days.
These growth rates are among the highest ever measured for polar waters. Researchers estimate that phytoplankton production under the ice in parts of the Arctic could be up to 10 times higher than in the nearby open ocean.
"At this point we don't know whether these rich phytoplankton blooms have been happening in the Arctic for a long time and we just haven't observed them before," Arrigo said.
"These blooms could become more widespread in the future, however, if the Arctic sea ice cover continues to thin," he added
The discovery of these previously unknown under-ice blooms also has implications for the broader Arctic ecosystem, including migratory species such as whales and birds. Phytoplanktons are eaten by small ocean animals, which are in turn eaten by larger fish and ocean animals.
A change in the timeline of the blooms can cause disruptions for larger animals that feed either on phytoplankton or on the creatures that eat these microorganisms.
"It could make it harder and harder for migratory species to time their life cycles to be in the Arctic when the bloom is at its peak," Arrigo said. "If their food supply is coming earlier, they might be missing the boat."
Scientists also believe that the discovery of phytoplanktons may also have major implications for the global carbon cycle and the ocean's energy balance.
"The discovery certainly indicates we need to revise our understanding of the ecology of the Arctic and the region's role in the Earth system," said Paula Bontempi, scientist at the Nasa, in a statement.
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