We are here in Ny Alesund, Svalbard, at 79 degrees north well within the Arctic circle conducting seawater sampling to address two key areas of global change affecting this stunning location. The first thing most people think of when talking about the changing Arctic is the loss of sea ice, which is a critical issue. However, this is not the only way in which the Arctic ocean is changing as a result of human activities. We are collecting data to monitor ocean acidification, the change in ocean pH that is also caused by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. This change in ocean chemistry has the potential to have wide ranging impacts on marine species, particularly those with calcium carbonate shells and skeletons, sensitive to these changes in pH. Many fish species have also been shown to be affected by this process.
The Arctic is particularly sensitive to ocean acidification due to the temperature of the seawater, carbon dioxide dissolves more readily in colder water. This means that ocean acidification is happening first and fastest in the Arctic, making it a really important place to study this global change process.
We are collecting seawater samples to monitor ocean acidification for this region and to add to a global data set being collated by the Global Ocean Acidification Observation Network. This involves collecting samples from different depths so that we can measure the chemistry of the seawater back in our lab. This can be quite tricky when working at temperatures of -10°C with -25°C wind chill, as all of our kit starts to freeze very quickly, and our fingers can get quite painful despite multiple layers of gloves. Teamwork, biscuits and a kettle of hot water keep us and our kit going though. Alongside the water sampling, we are running some experiments to examine how seawater chemistry affects the tiny marine animals that can survive here.
The second strand of research looks at the amount of microplastics found in these Arctic waters. The Arctic was recently identified as a global hot spot for microplastic accumulation due to the way ocean currents transport plastics around the world. Again this involves us collecting seawater samples, but this time we use a mesh net that we tow in the surface waters, concentrating any plankton and plastics (and ice) into our net so that we can then count and identify anything present. Identifying plastics requires a special machine back in our lab which confirms the material of the particle we are looking at. So, we don’t have any data from this year yet, but we did find microplastics in our samples last year.
Much of the current news focuses on a warming and melting Arctic, but there are more changes afoot in this remote and fragile environment. Our role is to investigate these changes caused by human activity and to inform how we can all change our behaviour to safeguard this stunning and important region for future generations.