Researching changes to our Arctic Ocean

Sea Ice: Image credit Ben LincolnSea Ice: Image credit Ben LincolnBangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences is leading one of 12 major research projects to have successfully bid to carry out crucial research in one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet- the Arctic.

The joint-funding for the work comes to the University from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) under the Changing Arctic Ocean project.

Dr Yueng-Djern Lenn, a Senior Lecturer in Physical Oceanography at the School of Ocean Sciences is to lead the new three-year research project with partners and collaborating institutions. The aim is to increase understanding of how changes within our oceans might affect the quantity of phytoplankton produced in the Arctic Ocean.

At the base of the food chain, phytoplankton are primary producers that take energy from sunlight, locking in the global-warming gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) into their structures and removing CO2 from the atmosphere as it does so. As the phytoplankton gets taken up in the food chain, some of this carbon can be exported to the deep ocean where it will be stored for hundreds to thousands of years.

Ocean scientists have seen an increase in Arctic primary production in the last few decades, but need to get a better understanding of where the nutrients which support the phytoplankton come from, and also how changes to these global movements of water might affect the phytoplankton.

Equipment deployed during a previous School of Ocean Sciences research cruise.: Image credit Ben LincolnEquipment deployed during a previous School of Ocean Sciences research cruise.: Image credit Ben LincolnAt the Artic Oceans’ surface lies a layer of fairly fresh water- due to the ice melt, while deeper waters driven towards the Pole from both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are far more briny and hold more nutrients. When these deeper currents are mixed to the surface in the Arctic Oceans, they provide the nutrients in the form of nitrates, which support the growth of phytoplankton through the summer season.

The project will monitor changes in the ocean currents, by measuring the nitrates mixed up into the surface layer from the deep ocean currents. This will be done with instruments deployed on moorings and one drifting platform over at least one full seasonal cycle.

Dr Yueng-Djern Lenn, who prepared the research bid and who is the Lead Investigator explains: 

“We don’t yet know whether the increased primary production will help mitigate climate change or how it will impact Arctic food webs. Neither do we know whether it will be sustained in the face of expected changes to how the water moves around our planet. These major deep-ocean currents are expected to change with the warming of the oceans and the increasing freshwater, from both sea ice melt and river discharge, entering the oceans at the Poles. This will also affect how the deep and shallower waters mix.

“Our research has shown that there is already more mixing between waters on the Arctic Ocean slopes, but we can’t assume that this will be the same everywhere. We think that it is the changes in the dynamics within the ocean water column that are driving the changes that we are seeing in the biology.

She added: “It’s exciting to be able to collaborate with so many scientists from different institutions who are supporting this research project.”

Further information on the PEANUTS project (Primary productivity driven by escalating Arctic nutrient fluxes?) can be found here.

Publication date: 3 July 2018