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November 17, 2014

Researchers crack the ice to study the Arctic marine food web


Local climatic changes impact algae living inside the sea ice, which may drastically affect near shore Arctic marine food webs

Scientists traveled to a town near the top of the world to study a creature at the bottom of the marine food chain--microscopic sea ice algae. Welcome to Barrow, Alaska, where a team of marine ecologists gears up to hit the sea ice--desolate terrain that is actually teaming with marine life.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Craig Aumack of Columbia University and a team have come here to investigate how algae in the sea ice contributes to the underlying marine ecosystems, and which marine organisms depend on the algae for nutrition.

Some algae live dormant in the ice all winter, bloom when the spring sunshine kick-starts a growth cycle, and, eventually, migrate down to the bottom of the ice and enter the water column where they provide a nutritious dietary food source to many marine organisms.

Going forward, the changing climate could mean disruptions to the sea ice community, as well as loss of the ice habitat itself, likely affecting a near shore Arctic marine food web that begins with algae and ends with much larger creatures, such as whales and polar bears. Aumack says the algae could be considered a “canary in the coal mine” for climate change in the Arctic--early sentinels of a changing ecosystem.

The research in this episode was funded by NSF award #1204166, Postdoctoral Research Fellowship.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.