NASA Makes Surprise Discovery in Arctic Ocean

Posted June 15th, 2012 at 8:05 pm (UTC+0)
4 comments

One of the most common kinds of phytoplankton, as seen through a microscope. These tiny oceanic plants were in a sample of water collected about 5 feet below the ice during the 2011 ICESCAPE campaign. (Photo: William M. Balch/Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences)

One of the most common kinds of phytoplankton, as seen through a microscope. These tiny oceanic plants were in a sample of Arctic water collected about five feet below the ice during the 2011 ICESCAPE campaign. (Photo: William M. Balch/Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences)

NASA has discovered phytoplankton are much more abundant in Arctic waters than any other ocean region on Earth, which could have a huge impact on our understanding of the region’s ecology.

Space agency officials say the revelation is as dramatic and unexpected as finding a rainforest in the middle of a desert.

The microscopic, one-celled aquatic plants are known as essential primary-producers, which form the base of the food chain for sea life.

NASA’s  ICESCAPE expedition made the discovery after punching through nearly 31 centimeters of thick ice.

Scientists found concentrations of the microorganism that were  “almost two orders of magnitude greater than any other concentration of phytoplankton ever found on the Earth,” according to Dr. Paula Bontempi, NASA’s Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry program manager.

Like other forms of plant life, phytoplankton need water, nutrients and sunlight to grow and flourish.

NASA researchers think these unexpected concentrations of phytoplankton could be due to Arctic ice melting at a very fast rate.

The thinning of the ice, according to Bontempi, causes melt ponds – pools of open water in what is normally solid ice – to form, which allows sunlight to shine through the water.

Since sunlight levels are usually low in the Arctic waters, it may be like “having this blast of sunlight where you didn’t have it before and then all of a sudden the plants just take off,” Bontempi says.

This expedition marks the first time the phenomenon has been observed,  so Bontempi and her colleagues don’t know if it’s something that’s been happening every year, or if it is just starting to occur.

If this large phytoplankton bloom in the Arctic is a totally new phenomenon, Bontempi says she and her colleagues will have to figure out what it all means.

The shallow but extensive ponds that form on sea ice when its snow cover melts in the summer act as windows, letting light penetrate the ice cap. (Photo: Don Perovich/U.S. Army Cold Regions and Engineering Laboratory)

The shallow but extensive melt ponds that form on sea ice when snow cover melts in the summer act as windows, letting light penetrate the ice cap. (Photo: Don Perovich/U.S. Army Cold Regions and Engineering Laboratory)

“This could have huge impacts for our understanding of Arctic ecology and, for that matter, carbon cycling [allows carbon to be recycled and reused] because, as you know, phytoplankton or plants take up carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. So, it’s quite possible that the Arctic carbon cycle models will be impacted as well.”

The large blooms of phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean could also have huge impacts on other forms of life higher up in the food chain, such as fish and polar bears, which feed and depend on the phytoplankton to find their food.

According to Bontempi, it will probably take a few years to do a full analysis of  the data gathered over two seasons by the ICESCAPE expedition.

Dr. Paula Bontempi joins us on this week’s radio edition of “Science World,” to talk about where scientists go from here after the discovery of  these huge blooms of phytoplankton in the Arctic.  Check out the right column for scheduled air-times or listen to the interview with Dr. Bontempi below.

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

 

4 Responses to “NASA Makes Surprise Discovery in Arctic Ocean”

  1. [...] NASA Makes Surprise Discovery in Arctic Ocean Hard drive in slow motion Tweet(function(){var po=document.createElement('script');po.type='text/javascript';po.async=true;po.src='https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js';var s=document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0];s.parentNode.insertBefore(po,s);})(); google_ad_client="ca-pub-1168645410336387";google_ad_slot="6347366216";google_ad_width=468;google_ad_height=60; [...]

  2. Jnan Bora says:

    Ref:-NASA’s SURPRISE DISCOVERY IN ARCTIC OCEAN. The love of God is made manifest in His creation. Everything in Nature has His purpose to serve the sustenance of life . God speaks and things happen, When His original gets changed by carnal force , He too changes His pattern.General Science has no scope to prove it. Already the global climate change has poised a concern to the world . The phytoplancton discovery in Arctic Ocean may be one of the signs that the poles of the earth gradually in slow motion are moving somewhere else with respect to the change in direction of the earth rotation .

  3. Jim Baird says:

    Wikipedia, “blooms disrupts normal functioning of the ecosystem, causing a variety of problems such as a lack of oxygen needed for fish and shellfish to survive.”

    e.g. Gulf of Mexico dead zones.

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