A NASA team, led by a leading biologist from Stanford University, have found an phytoplankton bloom beneath ice in the Arctic. The team believes the algae is a result of major changes in Arctic ecosystems as the planet warms. The discovery was made by the 2011 NASA-sponsored ICESCAPE expedition under the Chukchi Sea, and it has caused scientists to completely rethink how Arctic ecosystems work and what the future holds for the region.

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ICESCAPE’s objective was to send a team of scientists out to the Arctic in order to “improve NASA’s remote monitoring of the Arctic’s changing conditions.” However, what they discovered was a complete surprise. “Suddenly, the fluorometer went nuts,” Stanford environmental Earth system science Professor Kevin Arrigo told Science. “We thought there was something wrong with the instrument.”

Areas under pack ice usually assume a value of zero, because the ice and snow reflects solar radiation back into space, leaving no sunlight for plankton in the water below. However, that was not the case this time. “Not only was the value not zero,” said Arrigo, “production was higher there than it was in open water.”

Upon taking samples, the team discovered that the phytoplankton had not drifted under the ice from elsewhere. Instead, melting ice had allowed ice to penetrate large swaths of Arctic sea ice allowing the algae to multiply. What this means is that thick “multi-year” ice, which requires several seasons to accumulate, is on the decline and the Arctic’s ability to reflect sunlight has been severly hampered.

“Grow rates under the ice are higher than I thought was possible for Arctic phytoplankton,” Arrigo said, especially as algal cells, which normally take three days to divide, were doubling more than once a day. What is worse is that the team believe this occurrence is not limited to the Chukchi Sea.

There is a silver lining, though. The Arctic’s carbon capture rate will increase, although it probably won’t make as much of a difference as is needed. “Even if the amount of CO2 going into the Arctic Ocean doubled, it’s a blip on a global scale,” Arrigo said.

+ Stanford University

via Alaska Dispatch

Images: Stanford University, NASA Goddard Photo and Video