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Ben Hansen-Hicks


Two recent research developments in the changing Arctic’s ecosystem are not quite what you might expect in a polar environment; deep-sea algal blooms and soot particles.

In the global ocean conveyor belt, algal blooms are not an usual sight, but new research by the Black + Bloom Project has unearthed new evidence to show that algal blooms are indeed developing on the base of ice in the deep sea around the Arctic region. As cold, water is brought up to the surface from the deep – in a process called upwelling – as surface water is carried away by wind and ocean currents, with it comes high concentrations of nutrients. This upwelling process provides food for the algae and as primary producers, the organisms feed on these nutrients to create biomass for the rest of the food web. With more nutrient-rich water moving upwards through the water column, these algal populations will grow, leading to algal blooms. The interesting evidence that the Black + Bloom Project has unearthed is that algal blooms are forming on the base of ice-floes and on the Greenland ice sheet system.

In relation to the Albedo effect – discussed in Part One of this Arctic Series – these algal blooms only become a problem if the algae spreads to the surface of the ice. As the colour of the algae grows in concentration, it can affect the ability for the ice sheet to reflect incoming solar radiation from space (insolation). This, in turn, would have a knock-on effect on increased meltwater entering the oceanic conveyor belt system.

Dr Jack Landy, of the Bristol Glaciology Centre explains that early research into testing the different algal species, their propagation and resultant effects is still ongoing and inconclusive at present, with findings to be announced as the experiments continue. The Black + Bloom Project – a separate research group, but with ties to Bristol’s Glaciology Centre – are running expeditions across the Greenland ice sheet in order to monitor ice surface changes. Early findings hint that as more of the ice sheet melts, more algal varieties are beginning to grow, thus further impacting and intensifying the Albedo effect across the Arctic region.

Another factor into changing Albedo effect forcings within the Greenland ice sheet and surrounding sea ice system is the presence of soot particles, found on the surface of the ice sheet. Much in the same way that algal colouration would affect the effectiveness of insolation reflection, the spread of soot particles would also have a negative effect on the region’s Albedo feedback. While the prevalence of soot particles in the Arctic region is not a new development in itself, current scientific research groups are uncovering new findings that show a relationship between increasing forest fires in Canada’s northernmost reaches and the increasing presence of soot particles on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet.

The Dark Snow Project – similar but not to be confused with the Black + Bloom Project – focusing on the collection of black carbon snow samples to investigate spatial variability and its relationship to snow melt. Soot particles from forest burning practices in the high Arctic are beginning to darken areas of the Canadian Arctic snow, further impacting rising meltwater rates. An example of this; soot rising from the fires in Northwestern Canada were deposited within days, thousands of miles away in a recent experiment.

The question of what the research findings will offer in terms of mid to long-term trends is still an unknown, but with the new-found presence of deep-ice algal blooms and the increasing prevalence of soot particles from forest fires in Canada, a preliminary picture of the Arctic region and the changes occurring is starting to seep through.

In tomorrow’s final part, ‘The Arctic and the Future’ we will explore the challenges and changing relationships faced by the region and the scientists and politicians working in the geopolitical sphere. If you missed Part One, ‘The 1,000 Year Question‘ read it here.


Please use the following links in order to follow finding from the respective research projects;

Black + Bloom Project

The Dark Snow Project


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