Polar News

Meltwater Influences Ecosystems in the Arctic Ocean

Freshwater from sea ice delays the biological carbon pump by four months

In the summer months, sea ice from the Arctic drifts through Fram Strait into the Atlantic. Thanks to meltwater, a stable layer forms around the drifting ice atop the more salty seawater, producing significant effects on biological processes and marine organisms. In turn, this has an effect on when carbon from the atmosphere is absorbed and stored, as a team of researchers led by the Alfred Wegener Institute has now determined with the aid of the FRAM ocean observation system. Their findings have just been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Oceans are one of the largest carbon sinks on our planet, due in part to the biological carbon pump: just below the water’s surface, microorganisms like algae and phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. When these microorganisms sink to the ocean floor, the carbon they contain can remain isolated from the atmosphere for several thousand years. As experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), have now discovered, the meltwater from sea-ice floes can delay this process by four months.

EM1 csm 20180719 Sensoren FRAM Wilken Jon von Appen 001 78f6752b55From the summer of 2016 to the summer of 2018, the FRAM (Frontiers in Arctic Marine Monitoring) ocean observation system continually gathered data in Fram Strait (between Greenland and Svalbard). Dense clusters of moorings were installed at two sites in the strait in order to monitor as many aspects of the coupled physical-biological processes in the water as possible. Physical, biogeochemical and acoustic sensors throughout the water column and on the ocean floor, as well as devices that gathered water and sediment samples for subsequent laboratory analysis, were used.

“For the first time, for two entire years we were able to comprehensively monitor not only the seasonal developments of microalgae and phytoplankton, but also the complete physical, chemical and biological system in which these developments take place,” says Dr. Wilken-Jon von Appen, a climate researcher at the AWI and first author of the study.

During this period, the sea-ice export reached two extremes: in the summer of 2017, an extraordinarily large amount of ice was transported out of the Arctic through Fram Strait. This produced a great deal of low-salinity meltwater and a pronounced stratification in the upper water column. In contrast, uncharacteristically little ice was transported out of the Arctic in the summer of 2018, which meant there was very little meltwater and therefore no pronounced, salinity-based stratification. The processes involved in the biological carbon pump progressed so differently during these two extremes that the experts refer to them as two different regimes: the meltwater regime (summer of 2017) and the mixed-layer regime (summer of 2018).

EM2 csm 20180719 Sensoren FRAM Wilken Jon von Appen 002 e3530b973cMeltwater regime in the summer of 2017

The first algal and phytoplankton blooms appeared on 15 May, when the atmosphere began warming the ocean. In the summer of 2017, a great deal of ice drifted through Fram Strait, producing large quantities of meltwater.

“This low-salinity water lay atop the saltier water without mixing,” says von Appen. “And the stratification between 0 and 30 meters was ten times as strong as between 30 and 55 meters.”

Consequently, very few nutrients made their way upwards from the deeper water layers, while very little carbon made its way to the seafloor. Phytoplankton growth, which is the first step in the biological carbon pump, took place almost exclusively in the top 30 meters. This intense stratification only collapsed in mid-August, when the atmosphere no longer warmed the water’s surface. The majority of the biomass drifted down from the upper layer between September and November, was more than three months old, and was too lacking in nutrients to interest fauna at the ocean floor. In the meltwater regime, during the bloom the microorganisms were able to fix up to 25 grams of carbon per square meter.

Mixed-layer regime in the summer of 2018

The spring and summer of 2018 were another story entirely: conditions were relatively ice-free, which meant less meltwater and less intense stratification of the seawater. A mixed layer formed to a depth of ca. 50 meters. The diatom bloom started on May 1st; at the same time, the numbers of zooplankton, and of the fish that primarily feed on them, began to rise. Thanks to their feces, only two to three weeks after the start of the bloom, organic carbon reached depths of up to 1200 meters. Four to seven weeks after the start of the bloom – almost four months earlier than in the summer of 2017 – the biomass reached the seafloor. This material was rich in nutrients, attracting five times more fish and benthic fauna than in the meltwater summer. During the bloom, the algae were able to fix roughly 50 grams of carbon per square meter, twice as much as in the meltwater regime.

Despite all these differences between the two regimes, the biological carbon pump wasn’t necessarily more productive in the summer of 2018: “We found that, in the summer of 2017, the majority of the organic carbon didn’t reach the seafloor until after September,” says von Appen. “If you look at the period between early May and late November, the carbon export in the mixed-layer regime was only a third higher than in the meltwater regime.” Rather, the pronounced stratification in 2017 promoted longer-term growth over several months, since carbon and nutrients were trapped in the upper layers. In contrast, the ice-free situation in 2018 produced a brief, intense bloom and rapid export, providing food and carbon for deep-sea ecosystems on the ocean floor. As such, the latter would seem to particularly benefit from the summertime conditions in the mixed-layer regime; in the meltwater regime, the intense stratification blocks nutrient input in the summer and deep water mixing in the winter.

“In the future, the mixed-layer regime could spread over larger regions of the Arctic,” von Appen explains. “The conditions in this regime are similar to those in lower latitudes, and we conclude that the Arctic Ocean could increasingly behave more like oceans in southern regions.”

EM3 csm Grafik Mischsysteme 1597b83c57Das Schmelzwasser- und das Mischschicht-System im Vergleich (Graphic: Birte Wagner, illuteam)

About FRAM

In the polar regions, making scientific observations and gathering data are particularly challenging: extremely low temperatures, brutal storms and prolonged darkness make it far more difficult to use monitoring technologies. But the Arctic observatory FRAM (FRontiers in Arctic Marine Monitoring) is up to the task: its modular monitoring platforms are equipped with cutting-edge sensors that can be deployed on and below the ice, in the ice-covered water column, and on the ocean floor. In this way, they can make monitoring faster, more economical and more sustainable. “FRAM is a unique marine infrastructure asset used by national and international research projects to better grasp and describe polar ecosystems and their influences on the global climate system,” says Prof Antje Boetius, Director of the AWI. “The worsening climate change is also affecting the Arctic Ocean. Observing these changes in all their facets in order to grasp the causes and effects down to the ocean depths is one of our most important goals.” The FRAM infrastructure is funded by the Helmholtz Association and operated by the AWI.

Original publication

Wilken-Jon von Appen, Anya M. Waite, Melanie Bergmann, Christina Bienhold, Olaf Boebel, Astrid Bracher, Boris Cisewski, Jonas Hagemann, Mario Hoppema, Morten H. Iversen, Christian Konrad, Thomas Krumpen, Normen Lochthofen, Katja Metfies, Barbara Niehoff, Eva-Maria Nöthig, Autun Purser, Ian Salter, Matthias Schaber, Daniel Scholz, Thomas Soltwedel, Sinhue Torres-Valdes, Claudia Wekerle, Frank Wenzhöfer, Matthias Wietz, Antje Boetius: Sea-ice derived meltwater stratification slows the biological carbon pump: results from continuous observations (2021), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-26943-z

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