Arctic Ocean sea ice

Arctic sea ice break-up, Resolute Bay

Canadian Museum of Nature

© 2007, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


The Arctic Ocean is home to a multitude of unique life forms, highly adapted in their life history, ecology and physiology to the extreme and seasonal conditions of their environment. Many Arctic life-forms, including humans, are directly or indirectly dependent on the sea’s productivity. Several physical factors combine to make Arctic marine systems unique. These include a high proportion of continental shelves and shallow water, dramatic seasonality and low levels of sunlight, extremely low water temperatures, extensive areas of multi-year and seasonal sea ice cover, and a strong freshwater influence from rivers and ice melt.

The underside of Arctic sea ice is home to a unique community of algae and associated microscopic life, called the sympagic ecosystem, which is a crucial food source for many marine invertebrates and fish. Sea ice is critical for arctic marine ecosystems because it provides habitat for photosynthetic algae and nursery grounds for invertebrates and fish during times when the water column does not support phytoplankton growth. It is also critical because the annual cycle of melting ice releases organisms into the water, forming a mixed layer Read More

The Arctic Ocean is home to a multitude of unique life forms, highly adapted in their life history, ecology and physiology to the extreme and seasonal conditions of their environment. Many Arctic life-forms, including humans, are directly or indirectly dependent on the sea’s productivity. Several physical factors combine to make Arctic marine systems unique. These include a high proportion of continental shelves and shallow water, dramatic seasonality and low levels of sunlight, extremely low water temperatures, extensive areas of multi-year and seasonal sea ice cover, and a strong freshwater influence from rivers and ice melt.

The underside of Arctic sea ice is home to a unique community of algae and associated microscopic life, called the sympagic ecosystem, which is a crucial food source for many marine invertebrates and fish. Sea ice is critical for arctic marine ecosystems because it provides habitat for photosynthetic algae and nursery grounds for invertebrates and fish during times when the water column does not support phytoplankton growth. It is also critical because the annual cycle of melting ice releases organisms into the water, forming a mixed layer that supports the plankton blooms so important to ocean life.

Below the ice, in the pelagic and benthic zones of the Arctic Ocean, there is a surprising diversity of life. Animals such as sea stars, anemones, urchins, sea cucumbers, tunicates, clams, snails, fish, and many others, inhabit these waters. They are a part of the same web of life which includes the sympagic community of organisms, and so are themselves connected to the sea ice in many ways. And at the top of the marine food web, many Arctic mammals, such as whales, polar bears, walruses and seals, have evolved feeding and other behaviours dependent on the sea ice.

Scientists do not have all the information they need to know what all the combined effects of climate change on the Arctic marine ecosystem will be. However, they are predicting that the warming climate, which is resulting in the thinning and shrinking of Arctic sea ice, is likely to have a dramatic impact. Not only does the sea ice support plants and animals beneath it, it also supports a number of other animals such as large mammals which have developed survival strategies dependent on it.  Changes in this highly specialized environment are likely to cause significant repercussions throughout the Arctic marine community as a whole.


© 2007, Kathleen Conlan. All Rights Reserved.

Canadian Museum of Nature scientist Kathy Conlan diving in Cambridge Bay and Resolute Bay to learn more about the ecosystem.

Canadian Museum of Nature scientist Kathy Conlan has donned her diving gear in places such as Cambridge Bay and Resolute Bay to learn more about the ecosystem which flourishes under the ice of the Arctic Ocean. In this video clip, you can see a litle bit of this unique environment, which is home to plants, and a surprising diversity of animals including sea stars, anemones, urchins, snails and clams, to name but a few. The complex interactions between plants and animals here extends to larger vertebrates such as fish, seabirds and mammals, as well as to the people who live in the Arctic and have traditionally maintained a close relationship with their environment. Scientists predict that the warming Arctic climate will have profound impacts on this entire Arctic marine ecosystem.

Kathy Conlan
Fiona Currie

© 2007, Canadian Museum of Nature. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

  • Classify organisms according to their role in a food chain.
  • Describe interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in an ecosystem.
  • Explain how the biodiversity of an ecosystem contributes to its sustainability
  • Analyse the impact of external factors on an ecosystem
  • Use library and electronic research tools to collect information on a given topic
  • Formulate hypotheses regarding the effects of modifying the interactions that occur within a given ecosystem.

 


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