Skidaway Institute scientists study Arctic climate change

Climate change will have profound effects on the Arctic ecosystem, and those effects may be felt around the world. Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor Marc Frischer is launching a three-year project to examine the effects of rising temperatures in the Arctic and how those changes will impact the marine food web.

The project is funded by a $356,139 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We know global climate change is impacting the fragile Arctic environment,” said Frischer. “Atmospheric concentrations of heat absorbing greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide are rising; the Arctic sea ice and permafrost are melting; and models are predicting significant changes in precipitation patterns in the Arctic.

“What we don’t know is how living systems will respond or adapt to those changes and how, ultimately we as humans will have to adapt to those changes.”

The work will be conducted in Point Barrow, the northernmost location in the US, at a NSF supported research station operated by the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.

Pt. Barrow, Alaska, in winter

The landscape at Point Barrow is tundra that sits on top of as much as 1,300 feet of permanently frozen soil called “permafrost.” The concern is that with climate warming this permafrost will begin to melt and release an enormous amount of organic material into the coastal ocean.

“What you have now is have is up to 1,300 ft deep frozen soils consisting of ancient forest peat locked in the permafrost,” said Frischer. “What will happen when the permafrost starts to melt and that material, called humic acid, is released into groundwater, streams, rivers and ultimately into the ocean? That is what we want to know.”

Frischer’s focus will be on the microscopic organisms that comprise the very bottom of the Arctic Ocean food web. They include a wide variety of tiny organisms. On one end are the autotrophs, organisms that consume inorganic material and produce energy through photosynthesis, like plants. At the other end are the heterotrophs that consume organic material and obtain their energy from what they eat, like animals.

The humic acid material is rich in carbon, but lacks nitrogen, a key element that both autotrophs and heterotrophs need to make use of the carbon in the humic material. For every carbon molecule an organism uses, it will also need nitrogen.

“If you are going to grow more things, then that nitrogen has to come from somewhere,” said Frischer. “Our hypothesis is that as this humic material enters the coastal Arctic, there will be a greater demand for nitrogen at the base of the food web.”

Whoever gets that nitrogen, whether it will be the plant-like autotrophs or the animal-like heterotrophs, will determine how much organic production ends up farther up the food web in larger marine animals and eventually humans.

“This will all be set by whoever wins the war for nitrogen,” said Frischer.

Over the course of the project, Frischer and his team will travel to the Arctic several times a year. While in the Arctic, Frischer’s team will focus on making observations of the system and conducing experiments to determine what organisms are growing, which organisms are using the humic material, and determining where they are getting their nitrogen from and how they are doing it.

“We will manipulate the nutrients in the water samples and see how the different micro-organisms react,” said Frischer. “From that we should be able to project how the natural environment will react and ultimately contribute new data that help us understand and predict the biological effects of climate warming in the Arctic.”

Frischer will be working with two collaborators on the project, Patricia Yager from the University of Georgia, and Deborah Bronk from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Both Yager and Bronk received independent grants from NSF to participate in the study.

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2 Responses to “Skidaway Institute scientists study Arctic climate change”

  1. Watch out for the polar bears! « Skidaway Institute’s Web log Says:

    […] Our trip was part of our Professor, Dr. Marc Frischer’s, three-year project to study the effects of climate change (ie: global warming) on microscopic organisms in the Arctic Ocean. You can read more about this project HERE. […]

  2. Back to Alaska, for the last time…for now « Skidaway Institute’s Web log Says:

    […] Marc Frischer and Victoria Baylor are back in Barrow, Alaska for their final research trip on their climate change project .  They will be blogging about their […]

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