Researchers have measured a new world record: Small ice algae on the underside of the Arctic sea ice live and grow at a light level corresponding to only 0.02 percent of the light at the surface of the ice. Algae are the primary component of the Arctic food web and produce food far earlier in the year than previously thought.

Algae grow under the sea ice in the Arctic. Until now, it has been assumed that they only become active in the spring when the ice melts and light penetrates into the depths. As ice melts, the liquid water collects in depressions on the surface and deepens them, forming these melt ponds in the Arctic. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA, uploaded by PDTillman)
Algae grow under the sea ice in the Arctic. Until now, it has been assumed that they only become active in the spring when the ice melts and light penetrates into the depths. As ice melts, the liquid water collects in depressions on the surface and deepens them, forming these melt ponds in the Arctic. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA, uploaded by PDTillman)

It is pitch dark all winter in the Arctic. In addition, even when the spring sun appears in the sky, the compact ice and snow layer allows only a tiny amount of light to penetrate into the sea. But on the underside of the sea ice microscopic algae have adapted to the very extreme conditions prevailing here. Among these are diatoms that reside on the underside of the ice and in small channels in the ice - the so-called brine channels, where heavier saline water flows out of the ice and into the sea.

Assorted diatoms as seen through a microscope. These tiny phytoplankton are encased within a silicate cell wall and they live between crystals of annual sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. (Source: Wikipedia, Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University - corp2365, NOAA Corps Collection)
Assorted diatoms as seen through a microscope. These tiny phytoplankton are encased within a silicate cell wall and they live between crystals of annual sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. (Source: Wikipedia, Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University - corp2365, NOAA Corps Collection)

Here, in this extreme environment where temperatures are below the freezing point and salinity is higher than in the sea water, and where light penetration is extremely low for a large part of the year, the ice algae are found. All algae need light to live, and it has long been a mystery why algae are found in a habitat with almost no light for long periods of the year.

Under the sea ice, an algae community has grown. The underside of the sea ice represents an extreme habitat: cold, salty and dark for most of the year. (Credit: Andrew Thurber - Deep-Sea and Polar Biology. A research blog about polar and deep-sea research)
Under the sea ice, an algae community has grown. The underside of the sea ice represents an extreme habitat: cold, salty and dark for most of the year. (Credit: Andrew Thurber - Deep-Sea and Polar Biology. A research blog about polar and deep-sea research)

Researchers from Aarhus University went to the Villum Research Station in the north-eastern corner of Greenland to study the living conditions of the algae. The results of the research efforts have just been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. "We worked on the sea ice in April-May, where there was a metre of sea ice and a metre of snow on top of the ice. With special ice corers we drilled holes in the ice so that we could measure the ice algae on the underside of the ice and collect samples," explains Lars Chresten Lund-Hansen, Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University, who was in charge of the studies.

The temperature in North-East Greenland may decrease to -20oC in May, so researchers need to be well-dressed when the laboratory is located on the surface of the sea ice. (Credit: Kasper Hancke)
The temperature in North-East Greenland may decrease to -20oC in May, so researchers need to be well-dressed when the laboratory is located on the surface of the sea ice. (Credit: Kasper Hancke)

As primary producers constitute the base of the food web, ice algae are essential for the vulnerable Arctic marine ecosystem. Especially in the early spring where plankton algae in the sea are not yet active. "Our measurements showed that the ice algae began to grow at a light intensity below 0.17 μmol photons per square meter and second. This corresponds to less than 0.02% of the amount of light that reaches the surface of the snow on a sunny day," says Kasper Hancke, currently working at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) in Oslo, who was responsible for the field work. This is the lowest light level so far where active photosynthesis and growth of ice algae have been observed.

Snow at the surface reduces light availability in specific areas and thus the ability of algae to grow. (Credit: Andrew Thurber - Deep-Sea and Polar Biology. A research blog about polar and deep-sea research)
Snow at the surface reduces light availability in specific areas and thus the ability of algae to grow. (Credit: Andrew Thurber - Deep-Sea and Polar Biology. A research blog about polar and deep-sea research)

The general view has been that ice algae do not obtain sufficient light for growth when they are covered by a more than 30-50 cm deep cover of snow and ice. The new measurements completely change that view and show that ice algae may play an important role much earlier in the spring in the Arctic than hitherto assumed. During May, the depth of the snow on top of the sea ice did not change significantly, showing only a reduction from 110 to 91 cm. However, when the snow became warmer, its optical conditions changed so that a larger amount of light reached the underside of the sea ice, boosting the growth of the ice algae. "Temperatures are rising in the Arctic. When the snow on top of the ice gets warmer, the algae residing on the underside of the ice receive more light. This may significantly impact the growth of the algae and the extent of the 'spring bloom'. This new knowledge must be considered in the puzzle of how the Arctic will respond to a warmer world," says Lars Chresten Lund-Hansen.

In a warming Arctic the snow on the sea ice will melt earlier, resulting in more light under the ice and better growing conditions for ice algae. (Credit: Katja Riedel)
In a warming Arctic the snow on the sea ice will melt earlier, resulting in more light under the ice and better growing conditions for ice algae. (Credit: Katja Riedel)

Source: Science Daily, Aarhus University. "Sea ice algae blooms in the dark."