Arctic expedition explores climate impact on ocean

University scientists are setting sail for the Arctic Ocean as part of a £10 million research programme to investigate how the region is changing.

The researchers are part of a team from institutes across the UK taking part in an expedition to the Barents Sea, on board the Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Clark Ross.

The team is seeking to understand the effects of rapid warming and sea ice loss in the Arctic region – the fastest warming oceanic region in the world – on ecosystems and ocean chemistry.

Broad study

Scientists will contribute to international efforts to build a comprehensive picture of the Arctic environment and how it is changing.

Four projects will run concurrently from the ship during its five-week voyage.

These will cover different aspects of the Changing Arctic Ocean programme, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Taking part in the wider programme are researchers Professor Raja Ganeshram, Dr Sian Henley, Dr Robyn Tuerena, Celeste Kellock and postgraduate students Antonia Doncila and Margot Debyser, all of the School of GeoSciences.

Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross
Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross

Marine life

Dr Henley and Ms Kellock of the School of GeoSciences will take part in the voyage.

Dr Henley will work on two studies. One will look at the effect of retreating and thinning sea ice on nutrients and sea life in the surface ocean.

This team will be working with Norwegian collaborators to study the relationship between ice, ocean, nutrients, and biological communities during the transition from winter to summer.

Dr Henley will also work on a project to examine change in the ecosystem at the seafloor.

This will seek to gain new knowledge about Arctic biodiversity, food webs, the recycling of nutrients into the water, and the long-term burial of carbon as organic material.

Nutrient webs

Professor Raja Ganeshram and Ms Kellock are taking part in a project examining how change in the Arctic, for example the retreat of sea ice, is affecting changes in nutrient use, and the food chain, from small organisms at the seabed to large predators closer to the surface.

By capturing and analysing phytoplankton and zooplankton in the Barents Sea, scientists on this project will help gauge how the environment is responding to climate change.

Professor Ganeshram is not joining the expedition, but will support the project from Edinburgh.

Better modelling

Other researchers in the 20-strong UK team on board the vessel will investigate how warming affects the main source of nutrition at the bottom of the food chain.

The ultimate goal of the Changing Arctic Ocean programme is to generate a better understanding of the Arctic and improve models to predict future change to the environment and the ecosystem.

Some 76 scientists are taking part in the wider NERC programme, led by the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and the Universities of Leeds and Liverpool.

Species migration

Some of the clearest signs of change in the Arctic are the thinning and retreat of sea ice and the northwards migration of species from lower latitudes.

Researchers estimate that the region could be free of summer sea ice within a few decades.

These changes are likely to have an unprecedented impact on how the Arctic ecosystem operates.

This change is likely to affect the UK climate and economy, and impact on industries such as tourism and fisheries.  

Visiting a region of the world where climate change has had a significant impact gives us an invaluable opportunity to assess the impact on species in the region, and help understand how future change might take effect. This is particularly relevant to Scotland which is located at the gateway to the Arctic and whose climate, marine fisheries and energy resources are vulnerable to changes in the Arctic. The project also provides an excellent opportunity for young scientists.

Professor Raja GaneshramSchool of GeoSciences

The relationships between the Arctic’s ice, ocean, and the organisms that live there are complex. With the large scientific effort planned over the next three years, we have an incredible opportunity to gain a clearer picture of the most important interactions in the ecosystem and identify where and why change is most pronounced and the implications this may have.

Dr Sian HenleySchool of GeoSciences

Image credit: British Antarctic Survey