Can we detect changes in Arctic ecosystems?

Ecosystems are communities of organisms that interact with each other and their environment. They are often considered in terms of food webs or chains, which describe the interactions between different organisms and their relative hierarchies, known as trophic position. Ocean ecosystems provide key services, such as nutrition, control of climate, support of nutrient cycling and have cultural significance for certain communities.

It is thus important that we understand how changes to the environment reshape ecosystems in order to manage climate change impacts. The Arctic Ocean is already being heavily impacted by climate change. It is warming faster than any other ocean region and as it absorbs fossil fuel emissions, it is gradually acidifying. Arctic sea ice is declining by 10% per decade. This affects the availability of sea ice habitats for organisms from plankton to mammals and modifies the ocean environment. Finally, the Arctic is affected by changes in the magnitude of water movement to and from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and composition of these waters. Thus Arctic ecosystems are being impacted by multiple concurrent stressors and must adapt. To understand how Arctic ecosystems will evolve in response to multiple stressors, it is crucial to evaluate the effects of on going change. Often these questions are tackled by studies that focus on a specific ecosystem in one location and document the various components of the food chain. However the Arctic is diverse, with a wide range of environments that are responding to unique stressors differently. We require a new approach that can provide information on Arctic ecosystems from a pan-Arctic perspective over decadal timescales. To effectively monitor changes to pan-Arctic ecosystems requires tracers that focus on key ecosystem components and provide quantitative information on ecosystem structure, providing information for management and conservation of ecosystem services. Our goal is to respond to this challenge. We will focus simultaneously on the base of the food chain, controlled by the activity of marine phytoplankton, and key Arctic predators, harp and ringed seals. Seals are excellent candidates to monitor the food web due to their pan-Arctic distribution and foraging behaviour, which means they are exposed to the changing environment. Nitrogen and carbon stable isotopes are often used to examine ecosystems as they are modified during trophic transfer up the food chain. Hence, they can quantify seal trophic position and food chain length, key determinants of ecosystem structure. Crucial in this context however is the isotope value of the base of the food web, known as the isoscape, which is itself affected by a range of environmental characteristics and fluctuates in space and time. Equally, by virtue of changing migration patterns, seals themselves may feed on similar prey in different isoscapes, which would affect the interpretation of ecosystem structure from stable isotopes. These are the major challenges in using stable isotopes. We will link stable isotopes to novel tracers of the food web, known as biomarkers. When these tracers are compared against observations of the shifting isoscape and data on seal foraging, they permit seals to be used to monitor the Arctic ecosystem by quantifying their trophic position and overall food chain length. Via a range of observational platforms, our new food web tracers will be mechanistically linked to the spatial and seasonal trends in the Arctic isoscape and seal behaviour. By then combining historical observations from around the Arctic basin with state of the art ocean and seal population modelling, we can quantify past and future changes in Arctic ecosystems. This will provide information on past changes to Arctic ecosystems, but also put in place an approach that can be used to monitor future changes and aid in the management and conservation of ecosystem services.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£522,966 GBP
Start date
30 Apr 2017
4 years 11 months
End date
30 Mar 2022