The Arctic Circle is a manically deceptive place. With freezing temperatures and a seeminglyendless desert of ice and snow it gives the impression of an endless white wasteland. To the average person the only things living are polar bears and whales. But beneath this icy surface is a vast community of photosynthetic organisms that keep this world alive.
A community that is far from untouchable.
Increasing global temperatures is a constant threat.
That is why a team of University of Akron scientists, led by University of Akron professor Dr. Peter Lavrentyev, are spending their summers combing the ice in the frozen north.
Hitching rides on Arctic bound vessels, they have spent the past two years in the Arctic Circle looking under the ice and taking samples of microzooplankton and other microorganisms.
The team, consisting of Lavrentyev, Dr. Francisco Moore a marine instrumentation specialist, and Gayntonia Franze, a postdoctoral student, is funded by the National Science Foundation. Their ultimate objective is to better understand the impact climate change has on the tiny microbes that call the Arctic home.
“You can debate whether it [global warming] is real or not when you’re here, but when you go to the Arctic it’s pretty much in your face,” said Lavrentyev.
He says the ice is definitely melting and that it is this melting that summoned them.
“Ice is really important for most biological communities in the Arctic,” he said.
Dr. Lavrentyev, who has a doctorate in aquatic ecology is no rookie to the ways of the frozen north. His doctorate was actually obtained studying the effect of oil production on the Arctic Tundra, and over the years he has honed his skills in identifying certain microorganisms just by site alone.
“There are specific groups of algae that live inside the ice. During the summer when the sun does not go down there is enough light that the algae in the ice creates lots of primary production.”
Primary production is the first step in natures food web. It usually including plants that use the sun to make energy. But in the Arctic where it is too cold for mainstream plants, microorganisms such as algae and phytoplankton [tiny living microbes that use the sun to make energy, like plants do] pick up the slack.
Once they grow and multiply they are eaten by larger species such as fish, which are then eaten by seals, which are then eaten by polar bears.
“So when you remove the ice things change. It doesn’t mean life disappears from the ocean, its just different. There could be different algae communities that are not as good for crustaceans to feed on. The fish population will either decline or be replaced by a different species,” said Lavrentyev.
These are events he hopes to curtail. And his team is doing this by bringing bits of the Arctic Circle back to the University of Akron.
Although Lavrentyev admits it was a challenge getting the samples through customs. Also, in addition to the cold, money was another problem. The problem is that only the research they conduct is funded by the National Science Foundation.
The trips are not. They often have to hitch a ride with vessels already setting sail.
Lavrentyev said a Canadian icebreaker cost $80,000 dollars a day. Luckily, they were still able to collect the samples they needed.
Once on campus the samples were looked at at the molecular level. Joel Duff, a University of Akron Molecular Taxonomist took on this challenge.
This is no easy task. Duff said he has to take DNA [the tiny bits of information that make every living thing unique] samples from millions of organisms or more specifically whatever organisms happen to be in a water sample. Still, it is not waste of time. Duff said it is the predominate ones that he looks out for.
“Its all a big mixture, so if there was a lot of dinoflagellates, a lot of diatoms, or a lot of some particular organism hopefully there DNA is represented more times in that mix.”
Once they find that predominate species it will help them figure out which species is the most important in that particular system. This is important since Duff said you can often tell where a sample of water came from based on the type of microorganisms living in it.
“What are the most important species there. If they’re not there, there is ten other things that might need them to survive. If they disappear all the rest of them disappear,” he said.
Lavrentyev said energy is always lessened when it changes hands in the food chain. The plants have the bulk of primary production, herbivores get a small fraction of that, and carnivores get a even smaller portion.
“So any minor change at the bottom of this pyramid will be amplified greatly at the top. This is the major reason we want to know what happens to primary production. This will determine whether you have polar bears or if they just die of starvation or there is a complete replacement of the whole trophic pyramid,” said Lavrentyev.
Unfortunately, this natural domino effect caused by melting ice is not limited to Arctic wildlife. Certain human populations will also be changed. In particular the ones that rely heavily on successful fishing campaigns. This could be devastating since fisherman hold one of the deadliest jobs on the planet. An Oxford University study reports that fisherman are 50 times more likely to die than those in other professions.
This statistic was immortalized by the crew of the Andrea Gale that perished off the coast of Gloucester, Mass in 1991. It was caught in a storm and everyone on board was killed while looking for a better fish bounty.
“The whole country of Norway depends on the fisheries in these waters. The Barent Sea is one of the most productive fisheries in the world, despite being ice-cold. In Canada it mostly affects Inuit
populations and the same in Alaska,” he said.