Following the polar amplification of global warming in recent decades, we have witnessed unprecedented changes in the coverage and seasonality of Arctic sea ice, enhanced freshwater storage within the Arctic seas, and greater nutrient demand from pelagic primary producers as the annual duration of open-ocean increases. These processes have the potential to change the phenology, species composition, productivity, and nutritional value of Arctic sea ice algal blooms, with far-reaching implications for trophic functioning and carbon cycling in the marine system. As the environmental conditions of the Arctic continue to change, the habitat for ice algae will become increasingly disrupted.
Ice algal blooms, which are predominantly species of diatom, provide a concentrated food source for aquatic grazers while phytoplankton growth in the water column is limited, and can contribute up to half of annual Arctic marine primary production. Conventionally ice algae have been studied as a single community, without discriminating between individual species. However, the composition of species can vary widely between regions, and over the course of the spring, as a function of local environmental forcing. Consequently, current approaches for estimating Arctic-wide marine productivity and predicting the impact of climate warming on ice algal communities are likely inaccurate because they overlook the autecological (species-specific) responses of sea ice algae to changing ice habitat conditions. Diatom-ARCTIC will mark a new chapter in the study of sea ice algae and their production in the Arctic. Our project goes beyond others by integrating the results derived from field observations of community composition, and innovative laboratory experiments targeted at single-species of ice algae, directly into a predictive biogeochemical model. The use of a Remotely-Operated Vehicle during in situ field sampling gives us a unique opportunity to examine the spatio-temporal environmental controls on algal speciation in natural sea ice. Diatom-ARCTIC field observations will steer laboratory experiments to identify photophysiological responses of individual diatom species over a range of key growth conditions: light, salinity and nutrient availability. Additional experiments will characterise algal lipid composition as a function of growth conditions – quantifying food resource quality as a function of species composition. Furthermore, novel analytical tools, such as gas chromatography mass spectrometry and compound specific isotope analysis will be combined to better catalogue the types of lipid present in ice algae. Field and laboratory results will then be incorporated into the state-of-the-art BFM-SI biogeochemical model for ice algae, to enable accurate simulations of gross and net production in sea ice based on directly observed autecological responses. The model will be used to characterise algal productivity in different sea ice growth habitats present in the contemporary Arctic. By applying future climate scenarios to the model, we will also forecast ice algal productivity over the coming decades as sea ice habitats transform in an evolving Arctic. Our project targets a major research gap in Phase I of the CAO programme: the specific contribution of sea ice habitats to ecosystem structure and biogeochemical functioning within the Arctic Ocean. In doing so, Diatom-ARCTIC brings together and links the activities of ARCTIC-Prize and DIAPOD, while further building new collaborations between UK and German partners leading up to the 2019/20 MOSAiC campaign.