During our Arctic Mission yacht voyage last summer, wending our way between the ice floes northwards into the Central Arctic Ocean, I spent many hours thinking very hard about this globally unique, rarely experienced, environment.
About how to tell the story of the mounting challenges it faces, all human-driven to a greater or lesser extent. What I was most struck by was how different it felt sailing on its waters, compared to hauling a sledge over its winter-frozen surface.
I noticed on the voyage how much more evidence there was of micro plant and animal life, manifested as shades of brown ‘discolouring’ on the upper surfaces, through-the-ice, and undersurfaces of the ice floes.
And I got to thinking how the ice drifts around the Central Arctic Ocean, and eventually melts. I saw these ice floes as floating islands supporting huge colonies of micro-life that formed, as providing a habitat for life, and finally as a life-form dispersal system as they drifted and eventually collapsed (i.e. melted).
And then, quite suddenly I realised what I was really looking at – a floating ice-reef ecosystem that was a nursery, a dispersal mechanism, and a platform upon which most other animals in the CAO depended such as polar bear, narwhal, walrus, orca, seal, fox, beluga, bowhead whale, shark, fish, molluscs, invertebrates etc etc. It was like a classic coral reef ecosystem except the reef was formed by geophysical processes (temperature=state change, liquid>solid->liquid) in the form of ice, and it floated on the surface rather than be on the seabed, it moved around, and it formed/melted over months, seasons or a few years.
This is a perspective that could prove of supreme value in advocating heightened protection for the region’s wildlife and ecosystem.
A few days later we were moored to a floating ice-reef (aka ice-floe) and while the other expedition team members went about their different recording and scientific projects, I dangled my legs over the side of our yacht, Bagheera (skippered by the legendary Dutch sailor, Erik de Jong). And I stared at the edge of the ice-reef intently. I was looking at the multitudinous, rounded, sooped-out pockets in the ice’s underwater surfaces … and how many of these pockets had collected algae blooms, phytoplankton and maybe zooplankton in their bottoms.
And then I saw a small fish (3-4″ length) wriggling about in one of these pockets, likely a young Arctic Cod preparing to make its giant deep-dive to the ocean depths for the next phase of its life as is their way. So I started looking even more concentratedly, and I saw another, and then another. Perhaps 10 cod in all, all finishing their time in their ‘collapsing’ nursery, readying for the deep-dive. Sometimes they disappeared, after a fleeting glimpse, back into the recess of their pocket home. Or they lay at the bottom of their home curled, or full-length.
And then one of them just swam out, and DOWN. OMG! I had just witnessed the famous deep-dive. And I realised, if I multiplied this little scene by the number of ice-reefs in the Arctic Ocean, we’re talking a SERIOUS number of Arctic Cod. And that’s just the cod.
I believe it may have been a watershed moment – a precious and hard-won insight -that will inform everything our 90ºNorth Unit does to advocate for effective conservation of the CAO’s ecosystem.
Just as we had thought, scientific research by yacht has MANY advantages. Minimal-to-zero acoustic noise/impact from any propeller-related cavitation which is highly disruptive to marine animals, and minimal atmospheric and marine pollutants, unlike (ironically) most big research vessels. And minimal turbulence in the fine layering within the life-supporting upper section of the water column. And the ability to stop easily and frequently with minimal cost implications.
To date, 99% of all information – scientific or made public – is about the geophysics of SEA ICE … its area, thickness, volume, albedo effect, drift patterns, formation etc.
But this is to miss a super-critical point. That the loss of sea ice = loss of habitat and its ecosystem. To continue to observe the environmental changes through the lens of geophysics alone will be to sleep-walk into a catastrophic loss of one the world’s unique ecosystems that is inextricably linked with the presence of Arctic sea ice.
And if you’re thinking there’ll be plenty of Arctic sea ice in the rest of the year, keep in mind some scientists are already thinking there may be NO sea ice at any time of the year in 350-500 years time.
And yes, there will still be winter-forming sea ice in the Southern Ocean around the the Antarctic coast, but that has a different ecosystem; for example, no polar bears; walrus, narwhal, Greenland shark, beluga, fox, seabirds and ducks, some seal species etc. The Arctic Ocean has its own UNIQUE ecosystem , and stressors are rapidly accumulating that will effect its entire survival/existence.
So, yes, I was seasick for much of the voyage, but I believe that one insight may be the most important discovery of Arctic Mission I.
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