Arctic sea ice is quickly diminishing in the summer months, with many scientists estimating that within a few decades summers will be ice free. 2007 reigns at the lowest sea-ice extent ever recorded in the summer months of the Arctic, however, 2011 only lagged slightly behind for second. Ice changes come as no surprise to scientists who have observed decreasing sea ice extent since 1978, however, the rapid decline in recent years is concerning.
Now a study recently published in the journal Science relates phytoplankton bloom findings which had scientists stunned. Funded by NASA, researchers were collecting data relating to ice and water observations in the Arctic in order to compare data acquired via satellite to on-ground monitoring. During July 2011, scientists discovered an enormous phytoplankton bloom which occurred under ice.
While studying ponds formed by melting ice in the Chukchi Sea, the team of scientists found a phytoplankton bloom which stretched approximately sixty miles and was many feet thick. Scientists referenced the bloom as appearing like pea soup. NASA scientist Paula Bontempi stated that the discovery was “like finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert.”
The bloom was beneath a thin layer of ice while being supplied by the melted water in the ponds in the region. The bloom is said to have benefited from the thin layer of ice having protected it from ultraviolet radiation, allowing the bloom to grow more than open water blooms do. Previously scientists believed that phytoplankton algae blooms could only occur in the Arctic waters once the summer months melted the ice in the region to allow for open water blooms.
The implications of the algae bloom include a potential significant change in the ecosystem as phytoplankton are at the bottom of the food chain and therefore play a pivotal role. Species which benefit from phytoplankton blooms may be in trouble if algae blooms begin occurring when they are not yet in the region, such as migrating species. However, other species may benefit from the presence of the algae and the absence of their major competitors for food.