Ice Cap Threatens Ancient Arctic Basins
FAIRBANKS, Alaska, June 24, 2004 (ENS) - A multinational
partnership of polar scientists is poised to take an historic
census of marine life in the Arctic Ocean, including the
planet’s oldest seawater – a vast, still pool unstirred for
millennia, walled by steep ridges and lidded with ice.
Experts in biology, geology and physics from the circumpolar and
other nations will use submersibles, modern sonar detection and
traditional techniques to record and inventory biodiversity in the
Arctic Ocean in anticipation of additional climatic warming that,
if realized, could remove the ice cap and dramatically alter
aquatic life in the region.
The project is part of the 10 year, $1 billion Census of Marine
Life (CoML), an unprecedented cooperative initiative involving
leading marine scientists from every world region. The Arctic CoML
has been seeded with a $600,000 grant from the New York based
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, announced today.
"The tremendous on-going changes make the effort to identify
the diversity of life in the three major realms - sea ice, water
column and sea floor - an urgent issue," say researchers Rolf
Gradinger, Russ Hopcroft and Bodil Bluhm of the University of
Alaska-Fairbanks, the project’s headquarters.
More than 300 scientists from 53 countries are at work on the
Census, designed to assess the diversity, distribution and
abundance of ocean life and explain how it changes over time. The
scientists, their institutions and government agencies are pooling
their findings to create a comprehensive and authoritative
portrait of life in the oceans today, yesterday and tomorrow.
The magnitude of predicted environmental change on marine life
requires long-term monitoring, crucial to which is the
availability of baseline data. "Species level information is
essential to discussions of climate change, its expressions and
effects," the researchers say.
A particular focus of the Arctic project will be the Canada Basin,
a huge, largely unknown underwater ice-lidded hole 3,800 meters
deep immediately north of the Yukon Territory and Alaska. It
connects to the Pacific Ocean through the 70 meter deep Bering
Strait, and is sheltered from the North Atlantic’s influence by
the narrow Fram Strait and Lomonossov ridge, which juts up to
within 1,400 metres of the surface.
Many species existing in the extreme frigid depths of the Canada
Basin do not travel to shallower waters and are thought to have
been there isolated for millions of years. The genetic
characteristics that enable ‘extremophile’ species to survive
in such an environment are of interest to science.
Among animals scientists expect to discover are cephalopods, known
to exist around Greenland and Russia, that the researchers say,
"probably occur in the Canadian Basin although none have yet
"The shelf breaks and the deep-sea basins of the Arctic Ocean
are poorly studied for all taxonomic groups, with the deep
Canadian Basin being the least known of all," the researchers
say. "Given the Canada Basin’s long-time separation with
little exchange to other deep-sea basins, it will be a
particularly interesting area."
They will study life in the three main layers of the water column
– a low-density surface layer, an intermediate layer which
receives warm, salty water from the Atlantic, and a deep dense
layer formed through convection.
Also of particular focus will be biodiversity around the mouths of
Russian and Canadian rivers, which pour an estimated 2,000 cubic
km of freshwater annually into the Arctic Ocean.
Central to the project’s success will be the partnership of the
Russians, whose extensive Arctic research since the 1800s,
including 500 articles on Arctic fauna, will be made available
globally through translation and digitalization.
The project will involve three leading institutions in Russia: the
Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St.
Petersburg; the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow,
which is also affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences; and
the Zoological Museum of the Moscow State University.
The project will also consolidate and place online a large body of
literature in all Arctic nations, the result of environmental
studies of oil and gas exploration. Support will be extended as
well to creation of a Russian Taxonomic Centre to help simplify
The researchers say warming of sea surface temperature, changes of
the mixed layer, and reduction of sea ice will affect algae,
plankton and other ocean life, and subsequently the timing and
availability of life-sustaining carbon at the sea floor. Those
changes will in turn affect higher life forms, like fish, marine
mammals and sea birds, impacting "the functioning and
biocomplexity of the entire system."
The Arctic is the world’s least known ocean, its permanently
ice-covered waters more isolated than those at the edges of the
Antarctic continent. Because it is so isolated, scientists have
been surprised by the species diversity recognized to date. And
they expect to find even more by applying modern technology to the
"It’s certainly not the desert people thought it to
be," says Dr. Hopcroft, likening the variety of gelatinous
species, for example, to that off the coast of California.
"The basic biodiversity of all these gelatinous animals is
grossly underestimated in polar waters. Based on submersible
experience in other oceans, we expect to discover at least twice
as many species in most groups as currently described," he
Dr. Gradinger says sampling to date has relied on relatively small
boxes to scoop sediments from the ocean floor, or ice drills to
reach the water, missing many organisms which "simply move
out of the way."
The abundance of marine mammals and seabirds that depend on fish
suggest a corresponding abundance of fish in the Arctic sea.
However, "our knowledge of their diversity and abundance on
the continental slope and in the deep basins, particularly of the
western Arctic Ocean, is poor," the researchers say.
The deep waters offer "great potential for species discovery
... Deep-sea areas worldwide have been shown to harbor more
species than previously realized."
"The discovery of at least five new macrofaunal species, and
the collection of several species newly recorded for the area,
during a small sampling effort in the Canada Basin suggests that a
larger number of new species will be revealed with larger sampling
efforts." The researchers also hope to dispel a widely-held
notion that species diversity declines sharply closer to the pole.
The initiative’s greatest challenges include the availability of
extremely costly ice-breakers, typically scheduled two to five
years in advance. Also, political boundaries complicate access to
some areas. In particular, seafloor sampling and imaging "can
be a ‘hot’ issue in regions valued for their underground
resources or those known or suspected for dumping of nuclear and
While sampling the entire Arctic is unrealistic, "any effort"
directed specifically at understanding biodiversity can result in
"tremendous advances" to science, the researchers say.
Scientific questions to be addressed include whether biodiversity
"hot-spots" exist in the Arctic, how species
distribution patterns can be linked to the Arctic’s geologic
history, the linkages between biodiversity and ecosystem function,
and how to correlate species distribution patterns with
environmental data to predict the impact of climate change on
A 12 member scientific steering group has been created with
members from Norway, Denmark, Russia, Germany, the United States
and Canada. Efforts under the project will make a contribution to
International Polar Year, 2007-2008.
"Increases in sea temperature are occurring globally with
consequences that are hard to predict," said Chief Scientist
of the Census Dr. Ron O’Dor. "Accurate measures and
predictions of species distribution, abundance and natural
variation through time across a range of species are urgently
needed to help policy-makers respond appropriately to the
consequences of changes in the ocean."
Support for the Census of Marine Life comes from government
agencies concerned with science, environment, and fisheries in a
growing list of nations as well as from private foundations and
The Census is associated with intergovernmental organizations
including the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the
United Nations, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN
Environment Programme and its World Conservation Monitoring
Centre, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the
International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, and the
North Pacific Marine Science Organization.
It is also affiliated with nongovernmental organizations including
the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, and the
International Association of Biological Oceanography of the
International Council for Science.
Source: Environment News Service (ENS) 2004