Ocean researchers race to document Arctic regions threatened by climate change

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Posted by on August 01, 2005 at 21:11:25:

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Beneath its ice, the Arctic Ocean is teeming with life, says a team of international scientists that just completed a 30-day expedition to the northern ocean.

In the months and years ahead, the 45 scientists from the U.S., Canada, China and Russia that took part in the Hidden Ocean expedition will pore over thousands of photographs, ice samples and ocean specimens collected in the Canada Basin.

"We were surprised. There was an awful lot more life up here than what people expected and believe there is," said Russ Hopcroft, a Canadian researcher and assistant professor at the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

Hopcroft said most scientists found new species or, at least, species not previously believed to exist in the Arctic.

Despite the region's inhospitable climate for humans, the northern ocean is home to many life forms, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and unicellular and multicellular plants and animals.

From the shelter of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, teams of scientists explored the ice surface, beneath it and the ocean floor.

They ventured as far as latitude 76 degrees north in the basin, the deepest part of the Arctic Ocean, located north of Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

The study is part of an international census on marine life, and funding for a similar study of Antarctica was announced last Friday.

With the aid of a remote-operated underwater vehicle, a photo platform lowered from the vessel, diving suits and 24-hour sunlight, the team collected samples from places never before seen by the human eye.

Fred Gorell, spokesman for the expedition funded by the U.S. government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the main goal is to raise awareness.

"The oceans are 95 percent unknown, unseen by human eyes, yet so important to us," he said.

The specter of global warming makes it urgent to document life in the far north and the Antarctic.

"There's already fairly good indications that we're undergoing some kind of global climate change and the areas that are warming up the fastest are the poles," Hopcroft said from the Healy as the scientists prepared last week to disembark.

Arctic sea ice cover has decreased by about 3 percent per decade over the last 25 years, and there are indications ice thickness has decreased all over the Arctic.

Yet scientists know relatively little about the regions, Hopcroft said. As the changes continue, it will be important to have a benchmark to measure them against.

The race is on to document the polar caps, said Ian MacDonald, a professor at Texas A&M University.

"The scientific consensus is that the end of continuous ice in the summer months is within the human horizon - 50 years, 70 years, 30 years," MacDonald said. "In recorded history, we've never had that, so this is a new era. It will have enormous consequences."

Among the rare finds for scientists were observations of comb jellies, or ctenophores, a jellyfish-like creature so fragile some pour like liquid out of collection jars.

The expedition also had the first close look at mysterious pock marks that mar the ocean floor in the northern reaches of the basin.

Approximately 2 1/2 miles below the ocean surface there are as many as two dozen depressions, some up to 130 feet deep and a half-mile across.

"That was very exciting," MacDonald said in an interview via satellite telephone from the ship.

Most surprising was the amount of sea life that call the depressions home. MacDonald counted 72 sea cucumbers in an area of 3 square meters.

"The abundance and diversity on the sea floor was the highest we've ever seen, anywhere," he said. "We're very excited about that but we don't, at this point, have any clue as to why."


On the Net: oceanexplorer.noaa.gov

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