The School: Arctic Ocean Stays Lively in Winter

A weekly dose of education in the ocean.

In winter, the Arctic Ocean drops to -2 °C (28 °F), and there is very little light to supply photosynthesizing organisms. When the sea ice melts in spring it sparks an abundance of life, as we discussed in The School last week. It was long thought that the only way for most life to survive Arctic winter conditions was to lie dormant until spring, as many land organisms do.  

That’s why the findings from a recent Arctic research cruise were so surprising. In November and December, researchers aboard the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy worked through icy storms off Alaska to collect seawater and plankton samples, hoping to learn more about the Arctic ecosystem in winter.

US Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo by Henry Dick (National Science Foundation), Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. 

They were looking for copepods, small crustaceans that are an important food source for many animals, including whales. They expected copepods to be dormant, but instead found them quite active.

Another unexpected find: phytoplankton that were thriving despite the dark (they were low in number however).

Copepods are usually only a few millimeters long. Photo by Uwe Kils, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. 

Scientists are still analyzing the data, but their initial findings show how much there is to learn about this wild place. We are looking forward to learning more about their exciting results


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