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.
“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.
Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:
- Identifying the best treatment for HIV-positive women
- New suffixes for internet URL addresses may be on the way
- NASA launches its “black-hole hunter” space telescope
- As sun continues to reach solar maximum, can sun-storms affect us on Earth?
- Scientists find that we have about 10,000 species of microbes in our bodies
- Study suggests cave paintings predate modern humans