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Arctic Ocean mega-bloom: Scientists' eyes popped and jaws dropped

June 08, 2012|By Amy Hubbard
  • Researchers with the Icescape expedition on the Arctic ice in July 2011.
Researchers with the Icescape expedition on the Arctic ice in July 2011. (Rex Features via AP Images )

Nothing new in the world? Nothing left to discover? NASA would beg to differ. The discovery of an "enormous, off-the-charts" bloom of microscopic marine plants in the Arctic has floored scientists.

And it confirms, if nothing else, that there are things on this planet not yet seen -- things that you "never, ever could have anticipated in a million years." 

So says Paula Bontempi of NASA. An ocean biology and biogeochemistry program manager in Washington, Bontempi spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Friday morning about the discovery. 

Here's how it came about: Over the summers of 2010 and 2011, NASA's Icescape expedition was exploring the Arctic waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska. The expedition was spurred in part by climate-change research -- scientists wanted to know, Bontempi said, what effect changing radiation levels (from the sun) were having on Arctic.

"We know that the ice is changing, we know that it is melting at an incredible rate," she said. Researchers were trying to figure out what that meant for the ocean environment -- which affects all forms of Arctic life as well as the crucial fisheries industry and, thus, global economics, as Bontempi noted.

So a U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker bearing the expedition's researchers was chugging along in summer 2011, funneling the Arctic waters through its laboratory instruments, when, Bontempi said, someone noticed "these huge concentrations of the plant life and said, 'Is this real? Oh my God.'"

The crew brought the ship to a halt. Remaining in place, the researchers dropped instruments over the side and began a more thorough analysis. Preliminary findings were sent to Bontempi.

"I was blown away," she said. "I didn't think it was real." 

The bloom was vast -- a 60- or 70-mile stretch of active plant life.

The marine plants, or phytoplankton, are the base of the food chain, Bontempi said. So the finding of a bloom "on an order of magnitude unlike anything we knew existed on this planet" could affect higher forms of life -- fish, polar bears, walruses, etc. 

It's not just the magnitude of blooms or changes in sea ice that can have an effect, she said. The timing of blooms is also significant.

Animals in the Arctic are accustomed to migrating at a certain time of the year. With the timing of such a bloom, which is a key part of the food chain, are the animals going to adjust their migratory schedule to accommodate the change?

That's one among many questions scientists will be trying to answer.

Once they get over their shock.

If you had asked NASA scientists last year if they thought such a bloom was possible, Bontempi said, "they would have said no way."

Now "we need to get it in gear and figure out what this means."

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