School of Earth and Environment

SEE scientists set sail to explore the changing Arctic Ocean

30.06.2017 - 11:09

The Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Clark Ross, Credit: British Antarctic Survey

The Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Clark Ross. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

A new £10 million research programme to investigate how the Arctic Ocean is changing has launched its first cruise to the Barents Sea. 

The Changing Arctic Oceans research programme aims to generate a better understanding of the Arctic so models can more accurately predict future change to the environment and the ecosystem. 

Over 20 scientists from 16 UK research institutes, including the University of Leeds, have joined forces to understand the knock on effects of rapid warming and sea ice loss in the Arctic region. 

Dr Christian März, from the Earth Surface Science Institute is the leader of the Changing Artic Ocean Seafloor (ChAOS) project one of four projects covering different aspects of the research programme’s goals. He said: “Our ChAOS project will focus on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, the seafloor, which is by no means the boring, dark environment it might be perceived as. 

“It is, in fact, a complex ecosystem teeming with life, and it plays an extremely important role in Arctic biodiversity, food webs, the recycling of nutrients back into the overlying water, and the long-term burial of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as dead organic material. Our ChAOS team will, without doubt, have the muddiest job on the expedition, but someone needs to do it and we love it.” 

Some of the clearest signs of change are the thinning and retreat of sea ice and the migration of species into the Arctic that normally live at lower latitudes. As the fastest warming oceanic region in the world, the Arctic could be free of sea ice in summer within a few decades. These changes are likely to have an unprecedented impact on how the Arctic ecosystem operates. 

Robotic underwater vehicles will also be deployed to collect data near the edge of the sea ice. Hundreds of litres of seawater will be filtered to capture phytoplankton, and special plankton nets will capture zooplankton, small animals that are an essential food source in the Arctic. 

Dr Jo Hopkins, from the National Oceanography Centre and Principal Scientific Officer on the ship, said: “This is an exciting and ambitious first cruise that will collect a vast amount of information about Arctic water and sediments and the life that they support. Improving our understanding of how the Arctic ecosystem functions today will help us better predict and manage how it may change in the future.” 

The lead investigators for the Changing Arctic Oceans research programme are the University of Leeds, the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and Liverpool. 

The four projects covering different aspects of the programme’s goals are:

  • the way change in the Arctic is affecting the food chain, from small organisms at the bottom to large predators at the top (ARISE),
  • how warming influences the single main food source at the bottom of the food chain (DIAPOD),
  • the effect of retreating and thinning sea ice on nutrients and sea life in the surface ocean (Arctic PRIZE)
  • and on the ecosystem at the seafloor (ChAOS). 

The UK scientists will contribute to international efforts to build a comprehensive picture of the constantly changing Arctic environment. They will look at a wide range of complex interactions between different organisms in the ocean and at the seafloor.

Details of the cruise and the Changing Arctic Ocean programme research programme can be found on the NERC webpage 

Please contact press officer Anna Martinez at +44 (0)113 34 34196 a.martinez(at)leeds.ac.uk for further information or to arrange interviews.