Changing Arctic

Investigating fast-paced changes in the Arctic

Climate is changing faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet. Warmer temperatures are leading to the acceleration of sea ice melting, rapid thawing of permafrost (the year-round ice within the ground), and increasing release of greenhouse gases from Arctic environments. Acidification also is happening fastest in colder, polar waters because carbon dioxide is more soluble at lower temperatures. Observed changes in the Arctic waters may help with predictions of what may happen as acidification occurs at lower latitudes. Microbes in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding environment may help to lessen the impact of these changes...or they might speed them up. Bigelow Laboratory scientists are involved in several research projects to understand the role of these tiny giants in the changing Arctic.

Dr. Paty Matrai leads a multi-year project to understand how air quality is changing above the Arctic Ocean as ice cover diminishes. Microbes can affect air quality by producing trace gases that eventually affect cloud formation and ozone. Continuously monitoring air quality over ice in the remote Arctic, however, is no small undertaking. Matrai and her team designed custom buoys that drift with ice floes and autonomously measure atmospheric chemistry, sending the data via satellite to computers back on land. This year, Matrai’s team deployed four more buoys from icebreaker ships bringing the total in operation to 16. Matrai shares this first-of-its-kind data with colleagues around the globe, making it possible to validate three-dimensional Earth system models that allow prediction of changes in the Earth’s climate and marine ecosystems. Such models link marine microbes to air and water biogeochemistry in the Arctic Ocean. Comparing and validating simple and complex models for their capacity to reproduce current and past levels of phytoplankton growth in Arctic waters has been the focus of Dr. Yoonjoo Lee, a postdoctoral researcher in Matrai's lab.

As increasing air temperatures progressively thaw Arctic permafrost, nutrients that have been trapped for thousands of years are now being flushed into the Arctic Ocean at a much faster rate than ever before. Sea ice melting is also increasing the availability of metal nutrients as metals once contained within the ice are released into open water.Dr. Ben Twining is working to understand how these additional trace nutrients might impact Arctic phytoplankton in areas that will be less ice-covered in the future. This summer, Sara Rauschenberg from the Twining lab spent 65 days aboard the USCG Healy, the U.S. Coast Guard’s most technologically advanced icebreaker dedicated to Arctic scientific research, collecting samples from the Bering Sea up to the North Pole. The Twining lab is assessing if newly released metal nutrients support additional microbial growth in the Arctic Ocean, which could help mitigate the impacts of climate change by increasing carbon sequestration through photosynthesis. Postdoctoral researchers Jeremy Jacquot and Dan Ohnemus are complementing this Arctic analysis with trace nutrient measurements and experiments in the Pacific. Their results are helping to inform how phytoplankton physiology responds to strong environmental gradients, as are expected to increase in the Arctic as sea ice continues to melt.


As Arctic Ocean sea ice melts, shipping traffic and resource exploration are expected to increase. Drs. Paty Matrai, Christoph Aeppli, and Beth Orcutt are examining possible effects of oil spills in the Arctic. Aeppli is an expert in tracking how various components of oil break down naturally in the environment. While microbes in warmer waters are known to play a large role in digesting oil, little is known about how microbes specific to the Arctic react to oil. Matrai and Aeppli were part of the Arctic Oil Spill Response Technology Joint Industry Project this year to quantify the effects of various oil treatments on microbial communities in surface waters and sea ice. Aeppli and Orcutt are also examining the ability of microbes to mitigate oiled beach environments in the Arctic. This research will inform methods for responding to oil spills should they occur in this fragile area.

Scientists at Bigelow Laboratory are leading the way in Arctic research on a variety of fronts. This expertise was a factor in Maine being selected to host the international Arctic Council in 2016—the first time ever that its meetings will be held in Maine. Bigelow Laboratory scientists will continue to play an increasingly important role in investigating and communicating the changes occurring in this vulnerable ecosystem.

To learn more about how Bigelow Laboratory is working to increase understanding about the changing Arctic Ocean, click here: