Melting arctic sea
Melting arctic sea has played a critical role behind the freezing winters in Britain and other countries in the northern hemisphere say researchers REUTERS/Stuart McDILL

NASA scientists investigating the Arctic Ocean have discovered blooms of microscopic plantlike organisms thriving beneath the ice that were previously hidden from scientists and the rest of the world.

These findings will help scientists understand the consequences of the rapidly changing Arctic climate and could provide important clues to understand the changes in the polar ecosystem, said NASA in a press release.

In the ICESCAPE (Impacts of Climate on EcoSystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment) project, researchers explored and sampled the area below the ice on the Chukchi Sea continental shelf north of Siberia. According to the study, they found that phytoplankton biomass was extremely high, about fourfold greater than in open water, reported AFP.

Part of NASA's mission is pioneering scientific discovery, and this is like finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert, said Paula Bontempi, NASA's ocean biology and biogeochemistry program manager in Washington, in a statement. 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.

Scientists had believed that phytoplankton grew underneath the Arctic Ocean only as sea life moved to new areas during the summer months. But now the thinning of the ice, scientists believe, is allowing more sunlight to reach the water, creating new plant blooms.

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, in a statement. This discovery was a complete surprise.

The study suggests that the Arctic Ocean is more productive that researchers once believed. Researchers found the organisms doubling their number in just days. These growth rates were the highest ever measured in the frigid waters of the Arctic. NASA scientists also said the blooms appeared nearly 50 days earlier than they did only a dozen years ago. Still, more research is needed to determine how these organisms will affect the ecosystems, reported AFP.

The microscopic plant life forms the base of the food chain that ultimately feeds fish, seabirds and polar bears.

Phytoplankton also consume large amounts of carbon dioxide. Now, scientists will have to reassess the amount of carbon dioxide entering the ocean.

At this point we don't know whether these rich phytoplankton blooms have been happening in the Arctic for a long time and we just haven't observed them before, Arrigo said. These blooms could become more widespread in the future, however, if the Arctic sea ice cover continues to thin.