Scientists on a mission in the Arctic Ocean have made a “completely unexpected” discovery. They found a megabloom of microscopic plants flourishing underneath thick Arctic ice. The growth of phytoplankton, life forms at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain, was four times that found in open water.
“We were astonished,” said Kevin Arrigo, mission lead and a biological oceanographer at California’s Stanford University. “It was basically like a farmer discovering that not only can he plant a second crop in the dead of winter, but that this winter crop would outproduce the summer crop.”
The prolonged daylight of late spring days is thought to promote the abundant growth. When melt ponds, as seen above, form on the ice in the spring thaw, sunlight reaches the waters below in a way not previously understood.
The NASA-sponsored expedition — ICESCAPE, or Impacts of Climate on EcoSystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment — explored Arctic waters along Alaska's western and northern coasts onboard a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker in 2010 and 2011. The findings were published June 7 in the journal Science.
The scientists say they still have a lot to learn about the phytoplankton growth pattern and its significance for the Arctic environment. Many other life forms depend on phytoplankton as a food source. The scientists suggest that earlier spring warming trends could bring on the megabloom before migrating life forms arrive to feed on the phytoplankton.