Changing Arctic Carbon cycle in the cOastal Ocean Near-shore (CACOON)

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Engineering and Environment


Global climate change has led to substantial increases in air temperatures across the Earth, particularly in Arctic regions. This has led to changes in patterns of rainfall and snow cover, as well as the structure and stability of terrestrial systems. Unlike the tropics - where the majority of land-based carbon is usually stored in trees on land, the Arctic plays host to vast quantities of carbon locked up underground in frozen soils and ice, known as permafrost. This permafrost has been locked up for tens of thousands of years, and still often contains the remains of woolly mammoth, and exotic viruses [1].

The Arctic Ocean (AO) receives huge quantities of material from the Arctic mainland, much being delivered by giant Arctic rivers that drain vast swathes of the Eurasian and American Arctic. These rivers are now delivering greater quantities of water from land to the ocean, fuelled by climate-driven increases in rainfall and permafrost thaw. This will cause a shift in the amount, age and type of materials being delivered from land to the ocean. So, should why is this important?

The AO plays a crucial role in the storage and cycling of carbon, through the uptake of CO2 by marine plants, and the subsequent export of a fraction of this to the deep ocean - locking away carbon from the atmosphere. The ocean also plays host to bacteria (and other processes), which can release carbon from the ocean to the atmosphere. The balance of these processes is critical in determining how much carbon the AO will store, or release, in the future. Currently, we think the AO is a small overall 'store' of CO2 over the year, but this could change in the future, with hazardous consequences for global temperatures.

We will examine these processes, focusing upon coastal regions where freshwaters meet the ocean. Studies to date, have focused upon rivers only, or the ocean itself, but few have investigated where they mix. We propose to carry out three different strands of research that will fill these gaps in our knowledge. We will study the East Siberian Shelf Sea (ESAS) region, and two very large Arctic river systems (the Kolyma and Lena Rivers) that drain into the AO over this shelf. We'll focus on this remote Russian Arctic area as it is currently experiencing extremely rapid climate warming, riverine runoff rates are increasing fast here, and despite the shelf covering a very large area little is known about how this region will change.

Firstly, we'll conduct field campaigns collecting waters across the two study sites, sampling waters, soils and sediments during winter, summer and spring. This will involve sampling by boat in summer, and by skidoo - with drilling over ice during the Siberian winter. Secondly, we'll bring samples back from the field to conduct detailed experiments to determine how key environmental processes, such as sunlight and bacteria, use and alter terrestrial materials as they move from the rivers into the AO. This includes shining artificial sunlight at waters to see how materials change, or allowing microbes to 'feed' on what's in the water to see what they use and how quickly. Lastly, we'll combine our findings to develop modelling tools allowing us to model, or 'simulate', how fluxes of water, and materials travel from land-to-ocean over the ESAS. This model will contain separate compartments, representing different fractions of the materials sourced from land, for example different nutrients or carbon types. Also, it will simulate the major (small to microscopic) biological groups within the ecosystem, for example bacteria, and different phytoplankton groups. This will allow us to examine how the AO, and its biological processes will respond to future changes in freshwater supply and increased permafrost, and ultimately identify how these processes may alter the role of the AO in global climate.


Planned Impact

Our impact objectives are to:

1. Improve policy makers' understanding of the role of the Arctic Ocean in climate mediation and how this might change in the future, in order to assist decision making.

2. Engage with a wide range of stakeholders, focusing upon young people of school- age and the general public to raise awareness of Arctic climate change, and of the UKs need for understanding what takes place there.

Who will benefit and how may they benefit from CACOON research?
(How this will be done is outlined in the Pathways to Impact document).

The UK government acknowledges that our understanding of Arctic ecosystems, and in particular marine ecosystems is limited and that this knowledge gap "hampers our ability to fully understand the effects of climate change, and of human activity, on marine species in the region" [1]. CACOON will deliver improved understanding of Arctic change at seasonal to decadal timescales, to establish knowledge and understanding on the impacts of freshwater intensification and terrestrial permafrost thaw in marine ecosystem structure and biogeochemical functioning. The project will raise the profile of the UK by developing a biogeochemical model capable of adequately representing changes in the supply and character of materials from land-to-ocean, and quantifying its consequences upon key ecosystem processes and roles. CACOON will therefore benefit policy forming bodies such as governmental environment and climate change departments (e.g. DECC, DEFRA and their international equivalents) by contributing to a new understanding of how terrestrial and marine ecosystems interact to alter planktonic food-webs, and the role (and value) of Arctic Ocean biogeochemistry in climate regulation; evidence which can underpin policy. The project focus upon the Siberian Arctic also provides opportunities to build links with Russian scientists as sought by the Science and Innovation Network [1].

Greater understanding of the functioning and role of Arctic Ocean near-shore and how this may influence changes to marine carbon cycling are directly relevant to the knowledge and confidence of environmental policy communities including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the European Union, the Arctic Council, and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), as well as international science bodies such as the Scientific Committee on Ocean Research (SCOR), Future Earth (FE) and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and charities with a strong Arctic interest.

CACOON will benefit young people of school-age, with the aim of increasing awareness and participation in geophysics. 'Think Geophysics' will build on the success of the pioneering NUSTEM' project led by Northumbria University, previously funded for £1.2 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Research by the Institute of Physics revealed only 21% of physics students at UK universities were female. NUSTEM looks to target this gender imbalance by changing the way young people, particularly girls and under-represented groups, engaged with science from early years to sixth form and on to university. Think Geophysics will adopt this innovative 'blueprint as a cradle-to-career project aimed at using environmental geophysics to inspire young people, particularly in the aforementioned groups, into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The project will address the national shortage of STEM skills in the UK by inspiring more young people to take up these disciplines at university. 'Think Geophysics' will also help to better inform the public, by exhibiting in centres, museums, festivals and events across the North East.

[1] Government Response to the House of Lords Select Committee Report HL 118 of Session 2014-15: Responding to a changing Arctic.


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Description Bennet Juhls - Affiliated PhD student, Freie Universität Berlin 
Organisation Free University of Berlin
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution - Access to samples collection opportunities and data collected from CACOON - Historic datasets and information from Northumbria and Woods Hole (Partner) for optical data
Collaborator Contribution Arctic coastal and shelf regions are strongly influenced by climate warming and consequent sea ice reduction. The ecosystems of these regions are controlled by geo-bio interactions between ocean and land. Wind induced resuspension in shallow shelf areas river sediment input and coastal intensify turbidity events, causing low transparencies which affect large areas of the inner shelf. During such events, biogeochemical optical constituents such as colored dissolved organic matter Chlorophyll-a and Suspended Particulate Material absorb and scatter most light in the surface water. This PhD project focuses on Ocean Color (OC) remote sensing which provides a synoptic view of biogeochemical substances in the surface ocean with high spatial and temporal resolutions and therefore aids in a better understanding of land-river-ocean interactions in arctic shelf regions. In cooperation with the FU Berlin, DLR and AWI it is planned to develop improved regional OC products and apply them to study and monitor transport processes and long term changes in arctic coastal systems.
Impact None as yet
Start Year 2019