Fram Strait, Arctic, 10 June 2019 – Scientists conducting a unique multidisciplinary study in the European Arctic (Fram Strait), as part of a Greenpeace Pole to Pole expedition, have expressed concern over the impact of warming waters and changing ice on the basis for all marine life in the region: microscopic algae, also known as phytoplankton.

The team of scientists, from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the University of Washington, studied the region following a new record low for Arctic sea ice extent. There they observed that the largest amounts of algae were found in colder, low-salinity surface waters at the sea ice margin, and the lowest amounts in the warmest waters flowing north towards the Arctic. Phytoplankton serve as a key element in the Arctic food chain and a warming climate could have a devastating effect on this carefully balanced ecosystem. The final research results will be presented next year.

Mattias Cape, biological oceanographer, explains why this result is important:

“In a future Arctic, with warmer surface water and ice-free summers, we expect there to be less phytoplankton in the region. This could have significant impacts on the marine ecosystem, especially on marine life whose survival is tied to the presence and seasonal melting of sea ice and the source of food it provides”.

The study brought together ice physicists, oceanographers and marine biologists to help researchers understand how the Arctic ecosystem may be affected by long-term sea ice retreat induced by the rapidly warming climate. The research was conducted at several locations in the Fram Strait, between Svalbard and Greenland, a region chosen due to its unique ecosystem shaped by the warm Atlantic water meeting melting sea ice, which contributes to rich phytoplankton blooms.

From 8 to 21 May, the team took ice cores and water samples at varying depths to measure salinity and temperature changes in the ocean – valuable data that when combined with data collected by other international research groups will allow scientists to better track trends in the Arctic ocean. They also collected water samples at multiple depths to quantify patterns in the chemistry, nutrients and phytoplankton in the region, and paired these data with observations of zooplankton, bird and marine mammal diversity. These data will be used to make connections between the physical environment (ice, chemistry, nutrients) and the biology that depends on it (plankton, birds, marine mammals), to predict the effects of environmental changes throughout the food chain in this dynamic, rapidly warming Arctic system.

Marine life drives the ocean’s biological carbon pump, capturing carbon at the surface as organisms grow and storing it deep below as these sink out of the surface at the end of their life. Without this ocean sink for carbon, our atmosphere would contain 50% more carbon dioxide and likely make our world uninhabitable.  The last 100 months in Svalbard have consistently seen above average temperatures, with some instances of more than 12 degrees Celsius higher than usual. This April saw record low sea ice coverage in the Arctic.

Sune Scheller, from Greenpeace Nordic, said:

“The Arctic is the fastest warming part of our planet and one where global heating is most readily observed. From the tiniest lifeforms to majestic whales and polar bears, the Arctic ocean is under acute threat. Algae is the foundation of life in the region and a heating climate is terrible news for the food web here.”

Greenpeace is sailing from the Arctic to the Antarctic to raise awareness about the urgent call to protect at least one third of the oceans by 2030 as governments around the world negotiate a Global Ocean Treaty [1] at the United Nations. A strong treaty could pave the way for the creation of a network of ocean sanctuaries, including in the Arctic, free from harmful human activities and more resilient to threats like climate change.

ENDS

Notes:

Scientists and Greenpeace experts are available for interviews about the research.

Photo and video: photos and videos from the Arctic and science work can be accessed here. A collection of ocean photo and videos, can be accessed here.

[1] Global Ocean Treaty: the second of four rounds of negotiation at the UN towards a treaty covering international waters took place in April this year. The third round of negotiations will take place at the United Nations in New York in August 2019, with the treaty process hopefully concluding with a fourth and final round in spring 2020.  A robust Global Ocean Treaty could provide the legal framework for the protection of international waters, making possible the creation of fully-protected Marine Protected Areas, or ‘ocean sanctuaries’, free from harmful human activities. Greenpeace is calling for a network of ocean sanctuaries covering at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030, a target called for by scientists at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and welcomed by a growing number of governments. For more information: Protect the Global Oceans: Why We Need a Global Ocean Treaty. For a detailed policy briefing see here.

Pole to Pole Expedition: Greenpeace is sailing from the Arctic to the Antarctic, undertaking groundbreaking research and investigations, to highlight the many threats facing the oceans and to campaign for a Global Ocean Treaty covering all seas outside of national waters. See here for a map of the pole to pole expedition route. See the ‘contact’ section below for expedition enquiries, including for media interested in joining the ship on board.

Contacts:

Julia Zanolli, Global Media Lead for the Protect the Oceans campaign, based in Greenpeace UK, julia.zanolli@greenpeace.org, +44 07971 769107

Greenpeace International Press Desk: pressdesk.int@greenpeace.org, +31 (0) 20 718 2470 (available 24 hours)

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