The consequences for the Arctic marine ecosystem may be profound, said Horvat, although the extent of the damage on aquatic life depends in part on whether early-season under-ice blooms are likely to take place in addition to the usual September blooms, or instead of them. Earlier phytoplankton blooms run the risk of disrupting the Arctic food web, by being out of sync with the reproductive cycles of marine life that have evolved to take advantage of a later bonanza.
“If it’s an addition, it might be beneficial. We might have increased biodiversity, and more critters can live under the sea ice,” he said. “But if it’s replacing the bloom, there might be a shift of several months, from when the entire ecosystem is built, in about September, to about July. And that’s really abrupt because all these Arctic animals that feed on the fish that feed on the zooplankton that feed on the phytoplankton are all tied into a seasonal cycle. Nature’s not really adapted to rapid several-months shifts in that seasonal cycle.”
The Arctic remains a frequently inaccessible environment because of the hight cost and difficulty of organizing expeditions. Horvat said he is hopeful that research initiatives such as the International Arctic Drift Expedition, known as MOSAIC, which will intentionally trap a research vessel in frozen, drifting sea ice, might provide an opportunity to explore changes in Arctic marine ecosystems.
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In the meantime, he said, he marvels at the way in which the chance discovery of the 2011 bloom has underscored how much remains unknown about the impacts of climate change.
“I would never have thought to consider this problem,” he said. “I think it’s one of the greatest and most interesting paradigm shifts we’ve seen in a while, because it was totally out of left field.”
“It makes sense," he added. "But nobody had a clue this was happening. And if this is happening across the Arctic — and there are other observations that are trickling in — this is a dramatic change to our scientific understanding.”
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