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Does melting ice in the Arctic mean more algae?

A melt pond on Arctic sea ice. The photo was taken during the expedition of research vessel Polarstern into the central Arctic in August 2012.
[Photo courtesy of Stefan Hendricks, Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research]

Last year, Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest levels ever recorded. During that time, when the ice was the thinnest it had been in decades, scientists aboard the research vessel Polarstern found large amounts of an algae, known as Melosira arctica, growing under it.

Previous studies have shown that algae can grow under Arctic sea ice, but this new discovery suggests that the thinning ice in the Arctic may be speeding up the algae's growth by making more light available to it.

Antje Boetius and colleagues say that strands of the algae were hanging from the bottom of the region's sea ice. These strands could be easily dislodged, and there was evidence that many of them had sunk to the bottom of the sea, according to the researchers.

Patches of the algae—ranging from one to 50 centimeters in diameter—covered up to 10% of the seafloor, they say. And once on the seafloor, clumps of the algae attracted large invertebrate creatures, such as sea-cucumbers and brittle stars.

But, the large amounts of algae and the creatures that it attracts to the seafloor might be affecting the amounts of carbon in the Arctic—as well as the kinds of species that are found there. So, to learn more about how the thinning sea ice (and the increasing algae) will affect the Arctic, researchers must perform more studies.