The name of the project is “SUBICE” or “Study of Under-ice Blooms in the Chukchi Ecosystem.” (How do scientists always manage to make their acronyms spell something relevant? How long does that take them?) Basically what happens is that in the spring daylight in the arctic increases dramatically from almost constant dark to almost constant daylight, and at the same time the sea ice starts to melt back from its southern edge bringing open water farther and farther north. When the newly ice free water is exposed to sunlight it triggers huge phytoplankton blooms that lay the foundation for the summer food web in the Arctic. The Phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton and other tiny creatures like shrimp, krill, and fish larvae, those are eaten by fish, birds, and baleen whales, the fish are eaten by birds, seals, and toothed whales, and the seals are eaten by orcas and polar bears at the top of the food web. Without the phytoplankton there would be no link between the animals and the sun and the whole food web would collapse, so plankton are critical to all of the arctic wildlife all the way up to polar bears and whales.
Up until now the thinking has been that the phytoplankton blooms can only occur in open water after the ice retreats and exposes to the water to sunlight, but in 2010 and 2011 scientists in the Chukchi Sea accidentally discovered huge phytoplankton blooms UNDERNEATH the sea ice, which had never been seen before. Now they are returning to study the under-ice plankton blooms and try to learn more about them and the conditions that allow them to happen. One possibility is that there are types of plankton that are somehow adapted to live under the ice with limited sunlight and this has been going on all along, and it had just never been discovered before because no one was in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to see it. Another possible explanation is that this is a new phenomenon related to climate change. Over the past several decades Arctic sea ice has declined and there is more relatively thin first year sea ice and less thick multi-year ice. There are also more melt ponds of water on the surface of the ice that could act as lenses to let more light through. It’s possible that the combination of thinner ice and more melt pools is letting more sunlight through the ice and into the water below than before and allowing the phytoplankton blooms to start underneath the ice before it has melted back. If so that could have major unknown effects on the whole arctic food web.
The plan is to try to get far enough north early enough to get ahead of the melting and plankton blooms and be there to test the conditions before, during, and after any blooms that happen. So far it looks like we have succeeded in getting ahead of the spring. After some scarily plankton-evidence-filled samples farther south the last few rounds of water tests have showed only cold salty winter water, high nutrients, and no chlorophyll. In other words no plankton have been here yet. So now we keep doing sampling stations and see what we find.
And now a bonus polar bear photo (the obligatory vacation animal butt picture):