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Algae and Old Ice

Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

-Rachel Carson, Silent Spring


Global climate change, also (and less accurately) known as global warming, is threatening our planet's future. Scientific data confirms that it is already too late to stop the rise of the Earth's temperature. Even if human-sourced carbon emissions ceased today, carbon dioxide lingers for hundreds of years, trapping heat that warms the planet.

            Humans need hope to make hard changes. In the face of bleak statistics and dire warnings, many people wonder, "Why bother?" It's all pointless, right?

            Yes. Well, maybe.

            Science is working hard to understand the complexities of climate change and stop the upward trend in global temperature. As is, so it seems, the Earth itself.

            UNC Wilmington senior Elizabeth Bailey, a Raleigh, North Carolina native, is working toward a double major in physics and oceanography before continuing to Yale for grad school.

            On May 4th, 2019, she embarked on a journey to the Fram Strait near Svalbard, an archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole. From Svalbard, Elizabeth boarded a small research vessel to study various aspects of climate change in the Fram Strait. This northernmost ice-free ocean connects the Arctic Ocean to the rest of the Earth's oceans. And there, on swaying, pure white ice floes, under the blinding glare of a 24-hour sun that rarely raised the temperature above freezing, Elizabeth and her team gathered some encouraging data.

            Consider this brief explanation of Global Climate Change from UN Berkeley professor Michael Ranney:

            "Earth transforms sunlight's visible light energy into infrared light energy, which leaves Earth slowly because it is absorbed by greenhouse gases. When people produce greenhouse gases, energy leaves Earth even more slowly – raising Earth's temperature."

            The term "greenhouse gas" confuses some people—isn't a greenhouse a good thing? It can be: greenhouse gasses act like a blanket, holding in heat. Without greenhouse gasses, the Earth would be a ball of ice floating through space. However, adding more of these gasses to our atmosphere's fragile balance is like throwing additional blankets over the planet: more heat is contained, raising the average temperature.

            When the Earth gets hotter, glaciers melt, rising seas flood inhabited land, deserts expand, more water evaporates, and life on Earth becomes harder. Raise the Earth's average temperature by just 4 degrees Celcius, and there will be mass extinctions.

            There are a handful of greenhouse gasses raising the Earth's temperature, but the one over which humans have the most control, and the topic of interest here, is carbon dioxide. Carbon accounts for over 80% of the greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.

            Often, public attention focuses on reducing the emission of carbon dioxide gasses—reducing that "carbon footprint." Drive less, reuse and recycle, lower consumption, increase renewable energy sources. These are vital steps to take. Immediately.   

            But there are other ways of looking at our carbon problem, and Elizabeth and her fellow scientists are doing just that. And it's hopeful.

            Algae blooms—the rapid reproduction of microscopic phytoplankton—are on the rise in our oceans, including in the Fram Strait. There are many theories about the increase of ocean blooms, including the widespread view that melting polar ice simply means more habitat—more room—for the aquatic plants to thrive.

            Most of the reported science about ice melt and algae blooms is cautionary. More melting of land ice (glaciers) means more seawater. Some of the most horrifying statistics from science (except for those who belong to the climate-change-is-fake-news tribe) is the grave danger of rising sea levels. U.S. cities like Long Island, Miami, Charleston, New Orleans, and other low-lying areas are already losing ground

            It is less understood that sea ice (icebergs and ice floes) do not raise sea levels. Sea ice takes up the same volume, whether frozen or melted.

            Another widespread notion is that algae blooms are harmful. Excessive algae creates dead zones by blocking sunlight, contaminates drinking water, and can release toxins that kill aquatic life. However, both land plants, like trees, and ocean plants, like phytoplankton, live by using the process of photosynthesis—utilizing sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into foods.

            So, is there an alternative way of looking at increased algae and the melting of sea ice?

            Elizabeth's team thinks perhaps there is. They theorize that the algae "bloom boom" is a result of a balance of three things: more open oceans, ice as a barrier to wind circulation (circulation challenges algae growth), and meltwater from old sea ice. Increased algae means more photosynthesis.

            "Photosynthesis provides carbon sinks," Elizabeth said, "that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. When phytoplankton die," she continued, "they sink to the bottom of the ocean, and they can get trapped there for upwards of one to two thousand years."

            "The more algae there is to pull CO2 from the atmosphere, the better. If we stabilized carbon emissions," Elizabeth said, holding up her arm in a horizontal position, "flattening the upward trend, and the algae blooms continued, there would start to be a reduction of carbon greenhouse gas." She tilted her arm and said, "The curve would start to go down."

            Carbon reduction is a hot topic with climate specialists, and climate change is the backbone of polar research. Carbon sinks, Elizabeth explains, are sexy, and science counts on public attention for funding.

"Sexy science sells," Elizabeth said with a laugh.

            While carbon sinks may be sexy according to climate researchers, Elizabeth and other emerging women scientists are proving that smart is the new sexy and confidence is the new little black cocktail dress. So, what was Elizabeth specifically researching that made her eyes sparkle with excitement? Algae and old ice.

            Elizabeth and a team of scientists spent 18 days at sea, taking ice and water samples aboard the research vessel Arctic Sunrise. The science team and crew totaled 25 people from all across the globe. The ship operated under strict rules and a tight schedule.

            "Each day," Elizabeth said, "we would get up usually around 7 a.m., and before breakfast at eight, we would spend an hour cleaning the entire ship—everyone—that's kinda the way the ship works."

            The routine helped Elizabeth adjust to the confines of living aboard a ship. She shared a closet-sized room with a crew member, adapted to the 24 hours of sunlight, and learned to take short showers—all necessities of living at sea in the arctic.

            The team spent most of the day taking and analyzing samples from open ocean stations and ice stations scattered around the Fram Strait. Elizabeth studied the relationship between the age of the ice floes and the increased frequency of algae blooms. She wanted to know how ice's melting impacts the local ecosystem, especially the creatures that live in the water column under the ice in the Fram Strait.

            Collecting data from the open ocean stations was reasonably comfortable; the team stayed on board the vessel and collected samples from the water column.

            Ice stations, however, offered a bit more challenge. The "ice pilot," the crewmember responsible for navigating the ice without damaging the hull, docked the ship within chunks of ice called "ice floes." The team would then board dinghies and walk onto the floes.

            "You would jump off the boat," Elizabeth recalled, "and onto this classroom-sized piece of ice that's kind of jagged and weird."

            The floes rocked a bit, and the multiple layers of clothing required for the frigid climate made her feel like the "Michelin Man."

            "Mobility was definitely an issue," she said. "To paint you the struggles of my first day, going onto a piece of ice," Elizabeth said with a chuckle, "I'm from North Carolina, right? " She held up one finger. "I had never owned a proper pair of snow boots," she held up a second finger, "I'd never owned a proper pair of thermals," she held up a third, "or even a snow jacket," she laughed. "So, this was uncharted territory for me."

            Polar ice is getting younger. In the mid-1980s, polar ice had an average age of around three years, which indicates it survived the freeze-thaw cycle of the seasons for that length of time. In contrast, ice averages about one year of age today, showing that our climate has warmed such that little to no ice survives the spring/summer thaw.

            Elizabeth stood on a blinding-white, untouched landscape, where no human had ever walked.

            "It was beautiful," she recalled, "It was kind of like walking on the moon."

            She and the team took depth measurements of the ice, which, along with its albedo—the amount of solar radiation it reflects—determines the ice's age. Using a hand-operated crank, kind of like a giant corkscrew, she drilled core samples as well. These samples were cut into increments and bagged. Later, they melted the ice samples and analyzed the contents.

            They discovered that multi-year, older ice contains mature algae communities and a host of nutrients that appear to "seed" algae blooms. When old ice melts, it forms a layer of cold, low salinity water on the water column's topmost layer. Cold, fresh water, combined with the released algae communities and the nutrients to feed them, results in an explosion of growth: an algae bloom. The research showed a clear relationship: more old-ice meltwater equals more algae blooms.

            This data may seem puzzling—do scientists want the sea ice to melt to increase algae blooms and the resulting, sexy carbon sinks?

            "A scientist doesn't want anything," Elizabeth insists, "we need to observe. Plants do remove carbon," she continued, nodding her head. "It's definitely a ripple effect. Blooms mean more food," she said, "but if there's more meltwater, there's a less stable ice edge. There's reduced stable habitat for the big cats in the game: the polar bears, the seals, the walruses, the whales. They all depend on this environment."

            Elizabeth took some time to discuss the widely circulated images of skeletal, sickly polar bears and flooding from rising sea levels. The obvious question arose: how much might these algae blooms might slow the rise of the Earth's core temperature? She wouldn't speculate.

            "A wrong scientist is doomed for the rest of eternity," she laughed.

            Elizabeth's research seems to point to the theory that the Earth's ecosystem can still balance itself, and maybe it's already trying, despite the global climate changes, if human-sourced carbon emissions would cease or at least be drastically reduced.

            "Most experts would agree," she said, with carefully chosen words, "that a severe reduction in anthropogenic [human-sourced] carbon would lead to some 'bouncing back' of nature. My research indicates [. . .] that there are already ways that nature is trying to adapt to climate change."

            It's complicated.

            It's interwoven, and we are part of that web.

            "If anthropogenic carbon just flipped off," Elizabeth continued, "I would imagine that there would still be changes to the ecosystem, and that going back [. . .] would not happen as we would like to imagine. However, there is always a way nature balances itself with adaptation, natural selection, etcetera."

            But, before breathing a sigh of relief and driving across town for a burger, consider Elizabeth's parting words:

            "There is a cautionary byproduct of wondering what will happen when there is no more old ice. It might be great that these blooms increase for the next decade, but what will happen when all the ice is gone?"

            What, indeed?

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