SAMS robot gliders give unique insight into Arctic climate change

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Underwater robots from Dunbeg-based Scottish Association for Marine Science have uncovered new evidence about life in the Arctic and, for the first time, revealed the moment the region’s marine ecosystem springs into life after the winter.

The unique data was gathered by autonomous ocean-going ‘gliders’ and will help marine scientists understand more about the so-called Arctic spring bloom, which kick starts the ecosystem and is crucial in providing food for animals in the region.

Gliders work around the clock for months on end, taking measurements such as ocean temperature, oxygen levels and salinity. Researchers from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) at Dunstaffnage have been able to observe seasonal changes as they happen in the Arctic thanks to a continuous glider presence in the Barents Sea between January and July this year.

The gliders can also measure chlorophyll, an indication of the biological content of the water, and a rapid increase in the chlorophyll levels in mid-April this year showed the moment the spring bloom began.

The data could help predict how the Arctic ecosystem will respond to climate change.

Researchers from the project will retrieve their glider on their return to the Barents Sea on board the RRS James Clark Ross this July.

SAMS marine scientist Prof Finlo Cottier said: ‘This is the first time there has been a continuous monitoring of the Arctic ocean environment through the seasons and it has given us a very clear picture of how life responds to the changing conditions.

With warmer winters across the polar region, the Arctic Ocean is now experiencing year-on-year record low reductions in the extent of sea ice.

The retreat and thinning of Arctic sea ice is a key driver of change, increasing the amount of light in the ocean and encouraging mixing that brings deeper, nutrient-rich waters to the surface. These are two key determinants of productivity in the Arctic Ocean that the entire food chain relies on.