Our changing Arctic

Polar bear leaping gap in sea ice

16 November 2017 by Julia Horton

The Barents Sea is a wild, dark, stormy old ocean. Who would want to be out there on a ship in January?

Professor Finlo Cottier sums up the feelings of many as he describes the prospect of venturing into the Arctic in the depths of winter, when it is battered by the elements and one of the most hostile environments on Earth. But the Barents Sea is exactly where he is due to be at the start of 2018 when he swaps the relative warmth of his office at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) outside Oban for a cabin on a Norwegian research ship as he heads out on a project in collaboration with the University of Tromsø in Norway.

Collecting data every day, all year

Finlo's project is one of four that NERC has funded as part of the Changing Arctic Ocean programme, involving institutes from all over the UK and around the world internationally. The Arctic is a vast swathe of ice that supports a host of diverse marine life that's found a way to survive there. The wild weather, sub-zero temperatures and endless months of darkness during the winter make it extremely difficult to find out more about this unique ecosystem, and because of climate change, habitats are disappearing before we understand them properly.

The Arctic has become the fastest changing environment on the planet as global warming causes record melting of the vast mass of sea ice, opening up what was once permanently frozen water to the prospect of everything from valuable new global trading routes to drilling for oil. But Finlo is leading an ambitious new project which he believes could ultimately allow scientists to collect data 365 days a year from the Arctic, whatever the conditions.

Seals and seagliders

A combination of robotic machines, known as ocean gliders, and seals fitted with similar data-gathering devices, will play a vital role in recording and transmitting measurements on changing factors as the ice changes through the seasons.

A successful trial of the ocean gliders this summer found they could cope with potential hazards like strong currents. Now the wealth of information they will provide is set to transform understanding of how this vast, teeming ecosystem works - and how the significant loss of sea ice is changing the resources available for marine life to continue to thrive.

Finlo said:

What happens in the critical transition from winter through to spring - when lots of marine life grows - and into summer is really an unknown. Gliders can stay out for months at a time and be flown remotely, covering areas we could not reach by ship or where conditions are too bad for travel.

What we know about the changing Arctic

  • Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average.
  • Trees, shrubs and sea life are spreading north.
  • Sea ice is rapidly shrinking and thinning.
  • The ice-free season is getting longer.
  • Ice is melting in areas that never used to thaw.

These changes affect biodiversity and local communities, but also have global effects via climate change and sea-level rise.

Filling in the gaps

As well as testing the gliders, other work began on the milestone mission, such as recording the numbers and distribution of tiny phytoplankton organisms at the bottom of the food chain.

Every other breath you take is thanks to these microscopic oxygen-makers found in the oceans. So big changes to their survival rate really matter. And it's not just humans, phytoplankton are right at the bottom of the food chain and countless fish rely on them too.

The scientists are still crunching the numbers but their findings may have major implications for government policy on everything from fisheries to oil exploration.

Trying to ensure that the precious Arctic environment survives any new impact from human activity, as changing conditions open it up to the world as never before, also requires countries around the world to work together. That's why this programme is forging lasting international partnerships between scientists and governments.

Arctic glider in a hoist

One of the gliders that explore the Arctic Ocean

The four Changing Arctic Ocean projects

ARISE

Dr Claire Mahaffey, University of Liverpool, is finding out if we can detect changes in Arctic ecosystems.

DIAPOD

Professor David Pond, SAMS, is seeing how changes in the Arctic Ocean affect a small shrimp-like animal essential to the diet of whales, seals and fish.

ChAOS

Dr Christian März, University of Leeds, is investigating how changing sea ice conditions impact biological communities, processes and ecosystems.

Arctic PRIZE

Professor Finlo Cottier, SAMS, is using marine robotics to investigate how changes in sea ice cover are affecting the Arctic's ability to support marine life. For more information on all the projects please visit the Changing Arctic Ocean website - external link.