School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

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Investigating the impact of climate change on the Arctic Ocean

Newcastle University scientists part of an international research project to better understand future changes to the Arctic marine environment.

The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) have joined forces for the first time to invest almost £8 million in 12 new projects to carry out crucial research in one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet.

Starting today, the new projects will join the existing NERC Changing Arctic Ocean research programme.

Impact of climate change on fish

Among them is the ColdFish project, led by Professor Nick Polunin at Newcastle University, which will investigate changes in the food web and the potential consequences for the fishing grounds in the Arctic Ocean.

“The ColdFish project will look at how sea warming is changing the distribution of fish in one of the world’s most climatically-vulnerable ecosystems and fishing grounds,” he explains.

“We know there is movement of more southern species into the Arctic as the waters warm but we don’t know which species are competing and how this is changing the whole food-web on which the ecosystem depends.

“One of the key indicator species will be the Arctic Cod. Ice cover looks to be essential for successful recruitment and we will be looking at how the loss of ice cover and warming conditions might be impacting on the population.”

Loss of sea ice 'threatens the entire ecosystem'

The Arctic Ocean is especially sensitive to warming because of its reliance on sea ice, from the algae that grow on its underside to polar bears that hunt and live on its surface.

The accelerated melting of sea ice threatens the entire ecosystem, including some of the most productive commercial fishing grounds in the world.

Scientists don’t yet understand how these impacts are going to unfold. They need more data and improved computer models to predict the consequences. With cutting-edge science from 32 UK and German research organisations, the NERC Changing Arctic Ocean programme is helping to address these challenges.

UK Science Minister Sam Gyimah said:

"I am proud the UK is leading the way in tackling harmful climate change and today’s announcement means world-class researchers from both the UK and Germany will now be doing vitally important work to understand changes to marine life in the Arctic Ocean.

“Through our modern Industrial Strategy we have committed to investing 2.4% of GDP on research and development to help tackle major global challenges like climate change, ensuring a better world for future generations."

Twelve research projects

The 12 research projects span many of the effects of warming on the Arctic Ocean’s ecosystem. The disappearance of sea ice is one of the major drivers of change to the ecosystem (project Eco-Light). For example, the rapid melting of sea ice increases the release of chemical pollutants and plastic debris that are detrimental to marine life (project EISPAC) and exposes the ocean’s surface to the atmosphere to release climate-sensitive gases (project PETRA).

Sea ice retreat will also alter ocean circulation patterns in a manner that may potentially enhance the delivery of essential nutrients from the Atlantic and the Pacific and from deeper Arctic waters (projects APEAR and PEANUTS). This determines how well micro-organisms, that form the base of the Arctic food chain, can grow in the sun-lit surface waters (project Micro-ARC) or on the underside of sea ice (project Diatom-ARCTIC).

Any change to where, when and how available these micro-organisms are will impact the food chain, with consequences for the very productive fishing grounds in the Arctic Ocean (projects Coldfish and MiMeMo).

The Arctic marine ecosystem is not isolated from changes happening on land. Warming of the Arctic region is already causing permafrost regions to thaw and freshwater runoff to the Arctic Ocean to increase. The soil nutrients and toxins released on thawing enter the Arctic Ocean and shift the nutrient balance in seawater necessary for biological productivity, as well as increasing rates of greenhouse gas emissions and ocean acidification (project CACOON). Rising temperatures are also encouraging migration of new species to the Arctic with the challenge of adjusting their biological clocks to Arctic day-lengths (project CHASE), and may cause northward displacement of Arctic species (project LOMVIA).

The Changing Arctic Ocean programme started in February 2017 with four large research projects (ARISE, Arctic PRIZE, ChAOS, DIAPOD) funded by NERC. These projects have more than 80 scientists from 18 UK research institutions. As of today, the complement of a further 12 projects co-funded by NERC and BMBF increases the programme to over 170 scientists working at 32 organisations, based in both Germany and the UK. An essential component of successful work in the Arctic is international collaboration. The programme’s scientists are working closely with Arctic teams in 15 other countries to meet the programme’s objectives. The outcomes of the programme will contribute to improving predictions of change in the Arctic of benefit to decision making at levels ranging from indigenous populations to international policy.

These new projects will carry out research complementary to the existing four projects to fulfil the scientific objectives of the programme. They are called APEAR, CACOON, CHASE, Coldfish, Diatom-ARCTIC, Eco-Light, EISPAC, LOMVIA, Micro-ARC, MiMeMo, PEANUTS, and PETRA.

Full descriptions of each project are available on the Changing Arctic Ocean website (www.changing-arctic-ocean.ac.uk).

Arctic cod

published on: 9 July 2018