This year Greenland is experiencing one of the warmest summers in its recent history. This heat wave has meant that an international research team is in the unique position of being able to collect important climate data from the changing Arctic. Until today German and US scientists on board the research ship MARIA S. MERIAN have been studying the extent to which the strong inflow of meltwater into the fjords along Greenland’s west coast are altering the chemical composition of the seawater and thus the living conditions for algae and other microorganisms.
Under the scientific leadership of Prof. Dr. Allan Cembella from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association, scientists from the University of Oldenburg, the US-American Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Alfred Wegener Institute have until now spent 16 days travelling along the waters of the west coast of Greenland. During this time the biologists, chemists, physicists and oceanographers have been witnesses to an advancing ice melt: “The glacial ice is currently melting at an unprecedented speed, and in doing so it is releasing freshwater and substances that have been enclosed in the Arctic ice for hundreds if not for thousands of years,” says Allan Cembella.
The scientists also observed changes in water temperature which they measured in fjords at depths ranging from the water surface through to 700 metres. “An initial analysis of our measurement data from the Disko bay, for example, confirmed previous studies. According to this, there has been a clear rise in water temperature at a depth of 200 metres due to changes in ocean currents in the 90s. This warm water probably gets underneath the tips of glaciers where it can additionally promote glacial melting,” according to Allan Cembella.
Heat waves, glacial melting, decline in sea ice: the widespread changes in the Arctic present great challenges for its residents – especially on the west coast of Greenland. Allan Cembella: “We expect the habitats of many marine organisms to shift as a result of the warming. This shift will particularly affect the species that live in flat coastal waters because of late their summer ice cover has always melted. This means that fish stocks are affected in the same way as the plankton, the several species living on the sea bed, the sea birds and marine mammals – and ultimately also humans.”
With the expedition on the MARIA S. MERIAN research ship which ends today, the scientists are for the first time trying to document possible changes in the chemical composition of the fjord water and of the bodies of water in the coastal areas of Greenland and Iceland, and to draw conclusions about possible effects on symbioses in the ocean. “It is our aim to find out the extent to which the great inflow of melt water and resultant changed water properties specifically affect the life cycle of the phytoplankton. To this end we have taken samples of water from areas close to the glaciers and coast in the transition zone to the open sea,” explains Allan Cembella.
These data will be of incalculable scientific value, especially in view of icebergs breaking off glaciers as happened recently at the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland. “Several different future scenarios have until now assumed that harmful algal blooms will occur more frequently in the Arctic in the course of warming. Our current studies will help us understand whether and to what extent widespread glacial melting provides the chemical and physical foundations for such blooms,” says Allan Cembella.
Press Release, August 14, 2012