National Geographic
Menu

The Vibrant Marine Ecosystem of the Arctic Polar Night

The irradiance of the sun stretches above the mountains at noon in the Arctic Polar night. Photo by Jóhann Garðar Þorbjörnsson.
The irradiance of the sun stretches above the mountains at noon in the Arctic Polar night. Photo by Jóhann Garðar Þorbjörnsson.

Fresh snow crackles under my feet as I step out of the airplane onto the cluster of Norwegian islands called Svalbard. It´s slightly past noon but still I am looking up at a black sky full of stars and dancing Northern lights. It is so dark that I can hardly see the outlines of the mountains surrounding me. Svalbards northernmost tip touches 81° latitude. For roughly two and a half months a year the sun stays below the horizon creating an equally long Polar night. I am here as a student and assistant field worker to join a large research expedition where the major focus is Marine biology in the Polar night. Surrounded by a temperature of -20 °C with cold wind biting my cheeks, a vibrant ecosystem somehow is not the first thing to enter my mind.

Northern lights dance over Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world. Originally established as a coal mining town, it now hosts a vibrant research community. Photo by Jan Sivert Hauglid for the University center in Svalbard.
Northern lights dance over Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world. Originally established as a coal mining town, it now hosts a vibrant research community. Photo by Jan Sivert Hauglid for the University center in Svalbard.

The field work takes place in Ny-Ålesund in Kongsfjorden, the world´s northernmost permanent settlement. Originally founded as a coal mining community, all mining ceased after a tragic accident in the 1960´s. Today Ny-Ålesund hosts an active research community with numerous research facilities. The team moves into the well-equipped marine laboratory facing the harbor, armed with an array of high tech gadgets to gather data from the dark and freezing waters. A large research vessel, the Helmer Hanssen, stays further out in the fjord while numerous underwater robots equipped with sensors, sonar and cameras are to be deployed daily from the harbor.

An ROV is prepared for deployment off the pier in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.
An ROV is prepared for deployment off the pier in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. Photo by Jónína Ólafsdóttir.

In October 2007, moorings taken out of Kongsfjorden showed a pattern of high biomass movement in the water column. Such migration patterns, which are called Diel Vertical Migration, were thought to only occur during the summer time. It became clear to chief scientist Jørgen Berge that the organisms were staying active much longer into the winter season than he previously imagined. The observations inspired him to return with a team of scientists to take a closer look at what´s really going on in the Polar night. This recent field campaign in January 2014 is the largest expedition yet with up to a hundred scientists, technologists, field workers and students. Jørgen and his teams have come far in seriously challenging our long held view of a dead and still polar winter.

The truth is that life in the polar night has not been studied in much detail. A number of assumptions have been made about this period but in science that´s simply not good enough. “As terrestrial organisms we have a tendency to think of seasons and categorize that which is in the ocean in the same way. There is this misconception that this ecosystem is turned off during the winter and this is wrong,” says Marine biologist Geir Johnsen, one of the leading scientists on the project. “Forget the four seasons of Vivaldi, here there is only night and day,” he says.

An ROV returns after a successful deployment in the Arctic afternoon, it´s strong lights illuminating the dark freezing water.
An ROV returns after a successful deployment in the Arctic afternoon, it´s strong lights illuminating the dark freezing water. Photo by Jónína Ólafsdóttir.

Marine biologist Eva Leu is one of the many scientists here seeking answers to questions that have never been asked. You might think that showing up in the Arctic in the middle of winter to study photosynthesis is crazy, but this is exactly what Eva plans to do. “We know that there is chlorophyll in the water but the question is whether it’s capable of photosynthesis during this period,” says Eva. Her first step is to collect and concentrate enough algae for her measurements. ,,There are species of algae which thrive underneath the ice and these receive less than 1% of the incoming light. Just like the ice algae, the algae in the water might be surviving and starting to photosynthesize much earlier than we think with the low light levels available,” Eva says.

One approach is the use of High definition cameras mounted on ROV´s to give a glimpse of the life below. Having dreamt of driving an underwater robot for years I am ecstatic when I get the chance. I enter a state of intense concentration when I grab the joystick steering wheel of the ROV and glide down to the ocean bottom. The camera screen is very soon filled with a world of movement. Krill and amphipods shoot across the screen and the bottom is draped in kelps with the odd polar cod residing underneath. Sadly my robot ocean adventure is cut short when I tangle the motor in a piece of kelp. I luckily will have more chances to practice my ROV driving later during the campaign. In any case, as each day passes it becomes clear that life underneath the breaking waves is abundant and very active. Whelk snail eggs are found widely on large kelps. These kelps are already known to grow several meters throughout the winter season. Visual predators are actively feeding. Skeleton shrimps which are rarely seen at other times of the year are aggregated and seem to be mating while Little auks can be heard singing on the surface between diving down to the feast on the ocean floor.

Buccinidae whelks were abundant and one of many active animals shot with a High definition ROV camera during the Polar night project.
Buccinidae whelks were abundant and one of many active animals shot with a High definition ROV camera during the Polar night project. ROV drivers: Vincent La Foote Carrier and Oyvind Odegard.

And once again, moorings retrieved in late January show the same biomass movements as Jørgen Berge observed some years before, proving that daily migration is still active even in the darkest periods of winter. Towards the end of the campaign Eva Leu is pleasantly surprised. After persisting for days without any response she altered her approach to find that the marine algae are indeed capable of photosynthesis during the winter night. This finding naturally opens another floodgate of questions waiting to be answered as each of the Polar night campaigns seem to have a way of doing. It is clear that the hibernating Arctic façade is slowly melting away and it has become apparent that there is lots of feeding, growth and reproduction going on. The Arctic polar night is active, and it´s full of surprises.

Comments

  1. Dan Stone
    Washington, D.C.
    February 18, 10:22 am

    What a great story, Jonina, and such a unique place to tell it from. Eager to hear what your research team uncovers.