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This story was referenced in a diary by possum on June 11. The diary linked to a report by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

A team of researchers discovered a massive bloom of phytoplankton beneath ice-covered Arctic waters. Until now, sea ice was thought to block sunlight and limit the growth of microscopic marine plants living under the ice.

The amount of phytoplankton growing in this under-ice bloom was four times greater than the amount found in neighboring ice-free waters. The bloom extended laterally more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) underneath the ice pack, where ocean and ice physics combined to create a phenomenon that scientists had never seen before.

NASA released the following video indicating the size and possible significance of the bloom. Many people have seen algae blooms on ponds. This is a similar phenomenon, but under Arctic ice. According to the researchers, the ice is thinning and creating smoother and clearer ice lakes due to the warming effects. This allows the sunlight to penetrate more easily and stimulate the growth of the phytoplankton.

Come below the squiggle for some additional information.

What Are Phytoplankton?

Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live in salty and fresh water environments. Some phytoplankton are bacteria, some are protists. Most of them are single-celled plants. Common kinds are cyanobacteria, silica-encased diatoms, dinoflagellates, green algae, and chalk-coated coccolithophores.

They use chlorophyll to capture sunlight. Photosynthesis turns it into chemical energy. They consume carbon dioxide, and release oxygen. Their growth is affected by how much carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients are available. Water temperature and salinity, water depth, and wind are also factors affecting their growth.

Phytoplankton populations can grow very rapidly if the conditions are right. This is known as a bloom. A bloom can last several weeks. Individual phytoplankton rarely live more than a few days.

Why Is This Finding Significant?

According to NASA...
The finding reveals a new consequence of the Arctic's warming climate and provides an important clue to understanding the impacts of a changing climate and environment on the Arctic Ocean and its ecology.

"If someone had asked me before the expedition whether we would see under-ice blooms, I would have told them it was impossible," said Kevin Arrigo of Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., leader of the ICESCAPE mission and lead author of the new study. "This discovery was a complete surprise."

"At this point we don't know whether these rich phytoplankton blooms have been happening in the Arctic for a long time and we just haven't observed them before," Arrigo said. "These blooms could become more widespread in the future, however, if the Arctic sea ice cover continues to thin."

The bloom has implications for the Arctic ecosystem of migratory species of whales and birds. Phytoplankton are eaten by small ocean animals and are at the base of the food chain. The smaller animals are eaten by larger animals in the food chain. A significant change to the timing of these phytoplankton populations can have important consequences on the larger animals up the food chain. "It could make it harder and harder for migratory species to time their life cycles to be in the Arctic when the bloom is at its peak," Arrigo said. "If their food supply is coming earlier, they might be missing the boat."

Others believe this discovery could have implications for the carbon cycle and the energy balance of the oceans.

This is like finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert," said Paula Bontempi, NASA's ocean biology and biogeochemistry program manager in Washington. "We embarked on ICESCAPE to validate our satellite ocean-observing data in an area of the Earth that is very difficult to get to," Bontempi said. "We wound up making a discovery that hopefully will help researchers and resource managers better understand the Arctic."

"The discovery certainly indicates we need to revise our understanding of the ecology of the Arctic and the region's role in the Earth system," Bontempi said.

Additional Images From ICESCAPE

Originally posted to SciTech on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 08:10 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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