Sun, Nov 27, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Global warming altering
the Arctic food chain

The Arctic Ocean’s annual production of algae increased an estimated 47 percent between 1997 and last year, a result of warming that researchers say might have catastrophic effects on the animals that migrate to Arctic waters to find food or breed

By Carl Zimmer  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Illustration: Lance Liu

The Arctic Ocean might seem remote and forbidding, but to birds, whales and other animals, it is a top-notch dining destination.

“It’s a great place to get food in the summertime, so animals are flying or swimming thousands of miles to get there,” said Kevin Arrigo, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University.

However, the menu is changing. Confirming earlier research, scientists on Wednesday reported that global warming is altering the ecology of the Arctic Ocean on a huge scale.

The annual production of algae, the base of the food web, increased an estimated 47 percent between 1997 and last year, and the ocean is greening up much earlier each year.

These changes are likely to have a profound impact for animals further up the food chain, such as birds, seals, polar bears and whales. However, scientists still do not know enough about the biology of the Arctic Ocean to predict what the ecosystem will look like in decades to come.

While global warming has affected the whole planet in recent decades, nowhere has been hit harder than the Arctic. This month, temperatures in the high Arctic have been as much as 2.22oC above average, according to records kept by the Danish Meteorological Institute.

Last month, the extent of sea ice was 28.5 percent below average — the lowest for October since scientists began keeping records in 1979. The area of missing ice is the size of Alaska and Texas put together.

Since the mid-2000s, researchers such as Arrigo have been trying to assess the effects of retreating ice on the Arctic ecosystem.

The sun returns to the Arctic each spring and melts some of the ice that formed in winter. Algae in the open water quickly spring to life and start growing.

These algae are the base of the food chain in the Arctic Ocean, grazed by krill and other invertebrates that in turn support bigger fish, mammals and birds.

Arrigo and his colleagues visited the Arctic in research ships to examine algae in the water and to determine how it affected the water’s color. They then reviewed satellite images of the Arctic Ocean, relying on the color of the water to estimate how much algae was growing — what scientists call the ocean’s productivity.

The sea’s productivity was rapidly increasing, Arrigo found. Last year he and his colleagues published their latest update, estimating that the productivity of the Arctic rose 30 percent between 1998 and 2012.

However Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the University of California, San Diego, was skeptical. As an expert on remote sensing, he knew how hard it is to get a reliable picture of the Arctic Ocean.

The ocean is notoriously cloudy and algae are not the only thing that is tinting the water. Rivers deliver tea-colored organic matter into the Arctic Ocean, which can give the impression that there is more algae in the water than is actually there.

Kahru and his colleagues decided to take an independent look, scouring satellite databases for images taken from 1997 to last year — “every image available,” he said.

The scientists used a mathematical equation to determine how the color in each pixel of each image was determined by algae, runoff and other factors. Kahru decided that Arrigo was right: The Arctic Ocean has become vastly more productive.

Marcel Babin, an oceanographer at Universite Laval in Quebec who was not involved in the new study, said that the researchers had done “very careful work” that confirmed the earlier studies.

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