FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The University of Alaska Fairbanks research vessel, Sikuliaq, recently completed the first cruise of its spring and summer research program in the Bering and Chukchi seas.
University scientists and researchers from the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences spent the month of June aboard Sikuliaq studying spring productivity and food web dynamics as well as the negative effects that disappearing sea ice cover may have on Arctic habitats.
This 20-day voyage had scientists at sea between St. Lawrence Island and Point Hope. The crew was made up of 12 scientists, eight graduate students, four technicians, one observer from a coastal community and a media representative. During the program, scientists took ocean water samples as well as sea floor sediment samples to measure growth rates, oxygen consumption, productivity, lower rates of particles in sea water and ocean current effects on water flow.
Most Arctic ocean research occurs later in the season. Spring, however, is a richer time for biological research, said CFOS professor and chief scientist Seth Danielson.
“Scientists have tended to study the Arctic later in the summer, when ice is low and it’s easier to get around,” Danielson said. “But there are biologically important processes that also occur in winter and spring, so our focus is shifting to these other times of year, and how such processes impact the ecosystem that we have observed later in the summer.”
CFOS professor Russ Hopcroft put together a team of scientists to study plankton while aboard the vessel. Some results were surprising.
The team discovered a significant uptick in the presence of Neocalanus copepods, small organisms at the bottom of the food chain that are carried from the Gulf of Alaska by the current each summer.
Neocalanus are typically unable to spawn successfully in the Arctic, Hopcroft said. These higher numbers can signal a change in habitat for fish and other animals in the area that feed on the small organism. Further research will be needed to nail down whether this will remain a trend in the future, Hopcroft said.
“If this was a typical year, then we’ve really underestimated how important Neocalanus are as a seasonal food resource for species higher up in the food chain,” Hopcroft said.
This is not a typical year, however.
“The water was a lot warmer than we were anticipating at this time of year,” Hopcroft said. “But without knowing how this compares to other years and other regions, it’s hard to put that information in perspective. That’s why it’s so important to study different regions year after year in the Arctic. Things are rapidly changing, and we need to get a grasp on what normal is now to be able to measure this change.”
This research cruise was the first of its kind as part of a longer term, five-year program put together as part of the North Pacific Research Board’s new Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program, designed to study how shrinking sea ice affects Arctic ecosystems.
The primary part of the field program comprises two sets of research cruises.
“Ours goes out on the Sikuliaq in June 2017 and 2018,” Danielson said. “It’s ecosystem research, so it’s everything from physics through viruses and microbes, bacteria, all the way up to birds and marine mammals at the upper portions of the food chain. It’s investigating the links between the environment and food web.”
A second set of cruises is led by NOAA out of Juneau and Seattle. Those expeditions go out in August and September of this year and again in 2019.
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com