Photo: Kathryn Hansen/NASA

Arctic melt ponds
A pair of crew members from the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy retrieve a supplies canister dropped by parachute from a C-130 on July 12, 2011, into the melt ponds of the Chukchi Sea.

 

The crew visited the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, located south of the Arctic Ocean, as part of the ICESCAPE mission, or "Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment," which is a NASA shipborne investigation of how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems.

 

After digging through several feet of sea ice, the NASA-sponsored scientists discovered that the waters were teeming with enormous green blooms of microscopic phytoplankton. Even more astounding, the Arctic phytoplankton, which is under thick layers of ice, manages to thrive four times as much as it does in open water.

 

Paula Bontempi, the manager of NASA's ocean biology and biogeochemistry program, likened the discovery to "finding the Amazon rain forest in the middle of the Mojave Desert."

 


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Photo: Kathryn Hansen/NASA

Collecting samples

Jens Ehn of Scripps Institution of Oceanography (left) and Christie Wood of Clark University scoop water from melt ponds formed within the sea ice of the Chukchi Sea. The water is analyzed in the lab aboard the Healy.

 

Phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, was previously thought to grow in the Arctic Ocean only during summer, following the retreat of sea ice. Now scientists speculate that the increased thinning of Arctic ice might be one criteria causing the unprecedented blooms of phytoplankton living several feet underneath the ice.

 

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Sunset over icy melt ponds in the Arctic.

Photo: Kathryn Hansen/NASA

Arctic sunset

A sunset begins to tease the Arctic horizon as scientists aboard the Healy head south in the Chukchi Sea during the final days of ocean data collection for the 2011 ICESCAPE mission.

 

Bontempi stresses that the new discovery calls for a revision in the scientific understanding of Arctic ecology. The phytoplankton blooms present implications for the global carbon cycle, the ocean's energy balance as well as the broader Arctic ecosystem, which includes a migratory animals such as whales and birds.

 

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