Deep-sea ecosystem functioning in a changing climate: consequences of changing sea-ice cover for Arctic benthic ecosystems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Aberdeen
Department Name: Oceanlab


Deep-sea sediments form a major reservoir in the global carbon (C) cycle and C burial in these sediments constitutes a major process that sequesters C on geological time scales. Organic matter sinking from surface waters is the main food source for deep-sea organisms, and their feeding and foraging activities control whether this organic C is recycled into the water column or buried in sediments ('carbon sequestration'). Food supply to the deep-sea benthos is reliant on phytoplankton growth in the euphotic zone, and changes in community composition, export flux or timing of bloom events will directly affect the supply to and turnover of POC at the seafloor and, subsequently, C sequestration.
However, due to the remoteness of the deep-sea floor, our knowledge of the interplay between organic matter characteristics, benthic biodiversity and the early diagenesis of POC in the deep sea is very limited, and we can therefore neither reliably assess nor predict the consequences of climate change for this important ecosystem service. The detailed study of benthic C cycling in areas of strong natural fluctuations in POC flux characteristics, and/or pronounced climate-induced change in the pelagic environment, seems a promising way to gain urgently needed information on the potential impact of climate change on the cycling or burial of C in deep-sea sediments, while at the same time improving our understanding of the interplay between POM characteristics and benthic communities, and its function in the early diagenesis of POM.

Sea ice is a unique feature of polar marine ecosystems and the fact that small temperature differences can have large effects on the extent and thickness of this sea ice makes polar marine ecosystems particularly sensitive to climate change. Indeed, major ecosystem shifts related to retreating sea ice have been reported from both the Arctic and Antarctic. Ice algae account for up to 25 % of the primary production (PP) in ice covered areas on the deep Arctic shelf, and even more in the Arctic Basin, and thus are likely to form an integral part of the diet of deep-sea organisms. Moreover, ice algal blooms differ considerably from phytoplankton in terms of timing and distribution, thus providing higher organisms with food when and where other food is scarce. Ice algae also contain very high concentrations of so-called "micronutrients", essential substances that many marine organisms can not synthesize themselves. The retreat of sea ice and subsequent loss of ice algae as food source is thus likely to significantly impact on deep-sea food webs and ecosystems. However, despite much speculation, very little information is available on the importance of ice algae as food for benthic organisms.

We therefore propose to investigate the potential consequences of a climate-induced loss of ice algae (and possible shift to phytoplankton) as a food source for Arctic deep-sea food webs via two different approaches:
A. Ice algae and phytoplankton differ in their bulk Carbon isotope signatures, as well as in the Carbon isotope signatures of certain essential fatty acids. We will thus use this difference in isotopic signature to trace the uptake of ice algal and phytoplankton biomass by benthic fauna.
B. A series of in situ tracer experiments: we will label both ice algae and planktic algae with a tracer, add them to sediment cores obtained from the seafloor (so-called 'mesocosms'), and subsequently follow whether and how they are metabolized by the deep-sea organisms.
This work will be carried out in the Canadian Arctic in collaboration with Professor Philippe Archabault from the University of Quebec, during field campaigns in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Beaufort Sea.

Planned Impact

This study sets out to provide novel data on deep-sea and Arctic benthic ecosystem functioning and has strong
synergies with NERC's Biodiversity and Earth and Climate System themes. There are a broad range of stakeholders beyond the scientific community who would find added value in this research programme.
There is a strong natural fascination in the general public with the marine and polar environment (as demonstrated again very recently by the success of the 'Frozen Planet' series). As a measure of knowledge transfer to this group we are proposing the production of a filmed documentary which will be made available to TV stations in the UK, Europe and Canada using the established collaboration of the Aberdeen and SAMS Communications Departments with Alexandros Giannios, a free-lance cinematographer, and Christina Biliouri, Royal College of Arts, London. It will also be disseminated through the institutional outreach channels of our Canadian partners (P. Archambault) and furthermore be available on DVD. A compact version will be made available on YouTube.
Alongside the general public, these stakeholders include governmental policy makers and non-governmental organisations who have expressed clear needs for some of the data we propose to collect.
Detailed information on the role of sea-ice derived organic matter for benthic secondary production, and ecosystem functions such as carbon and nutrient cycling, and the response of arctic ecosystems to climate change, is urgently needed to inform conservation policy and marine management at national, regional and international levels.
Description NERC Arctic bursary
Amount £18,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2018
Description NERC Oil and Gas CDT
Amount £75,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 09/2018
Description SAGES PhD studentship
Amount £35,000 (GBP)
Organisation Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society (SAGES) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2017 
End 03/2021
Description The North research theme
Amount £60,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Aberdeen 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2013 
End 01/2016
Description Prof Philippe Archambault 
Organisation University of Quebec
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Staff, equipment, planned and carried out research
Collaborator Contribution Shiptime, taxonomy lab and
Impact in preparation
Start Year 2011
Description OceanSmart 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited presentation on monitoring technologies suitable for Arctic, sparked lifely request with regulaotrs and policy makers afterwards.

resulted in inclusion of in situ technologies into monitoring portfolio
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Primary School visits to Oceanlab 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Primary school visits - stimulated lively discussions on deep-sea protection and climate change

Increased awareness of issues such as litter in deep-sea
High number of pupils expressed an interest in a career as scientist
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013,2014