NASA scientists have made a new discovery, though it’s not in space. During a recent research, the scientists discovered microscopic plants actively growing beneath the melting Arctic ice, revealing another consequence of global warming and an opportunity to understand the impacts it could have on the Arctic Ocean and its ecology.
NASA hosted a media teleconference on Thursday to present the research based on the newly discovered Arctic waters. The rapidly growing garden of these marine plants, called phytoplankton, has come as a shocking revelation.
“If someone had asked me before the expedition whether we would see under-ice blooms, I would have told them it was impossible,” said Kevin Arrigo of Stanford University, leader of the ICESCAPE mission and lead author of the new study. “This discovery was a complete surprise.”
Previously, it was thought that the sea ice blocked most of the sunlight that the phytoplankton needs for its growth. After the discovery, it is clear that the thinning Arctic ice is spurring the blooms.
The discovery has caused quite a stir, raising questions whether such arctic blooms have been happening for a long time and had gone unnoticed or is this the first time that climatic shifts have left such a profound impact. Kevin Arrigo said that if the Arctic sea ice continues to thin at the same rate, more widespread blooms could be seen in the future.
Paula Bontempi, NASA’s ocean biology and biogeochemistry program manager, says the discovery is nothing less than finding a rainforest in the middle of Mojave Desert.
“We embarked on ICESCAPE to validate our satellite ocean-observing data in an area of the Earth that is very difficult to get to. We wound up making a discovery that hopefully will help researchers and resource managers better understand the Arctic,” said Bontempi.
But there is a downside as well. Many animals that rely on the plant life have timed their life cycles around the blooming season.
“It could make it harder and harder for migratory species to time their life cycles to be in the Arctic when the bloom is at its peak,” Arrigo said. “If their food supply [in the form of phytoplankton] is coming earlier, they might be missing their boat.”
Phytoplankton consumes large amount of carbon dioxide. With the latest findings, there will be a need to reassess the Arctic Ocean’s carbon dioxide levels and its overall energy balance.