Glaciers + Algal Blooms = Good?

James Bay, the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada, is shown here in an image taken by the Suomi NPP satellite's VIIRS instrument around 1825Z on September 17, 2013. Sediment flow from rivers and algal blooms can be seen well in this clear view. (NOAA/NASA)
James Bay, the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada, is shown here in an image taken by the Suomi NPP satellite’s VIIRS instrument around 1825Z on September 17, 2013. Sediment flow from rivers and algal blooms can be seen well in this clear view. (NOAA/NASA)

The pros and cons of algal blooms, high concentrations of phytoplankton in the oceans, are a subject of much debate. But several studies in recent months have examined links between changing polar environments, exponential growth of algal blooms, and potential for carbon reduction.

One study, appearing in the journal Nature Communications in May 2014, suggests that ocean iron from glacial melt could have positive effects for polar regions in the face of global warming because of the nutrient quality for algae. “The theory goes that the more iron you add, the more productive these plankton are,” John Hawking, a doctoral student at the University of Bristol and lead author of the study, told Scientific American in May.

The University of Bristol study examined the amount of a specific type of iron (bioavailable ferrihydrite) released in glacial melt water from the Leverett Glacier in Greenland. The levels of this form of iron found in the glacier allowed Hawking to estimate that an iron flux of up to 400,000 to 2.5 million metric tons could be flowing from Greenland annually. These releases have the potential to be transported up to 900 km from the site of origin and to greatly affect the global iron cycle.

The ICESCAPE mission, or "Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment," is NASA's two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. (Kathryn Hansen/NASA)
The ICESCAPE mission, or “Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment,” is NASA’s two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean’s chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. (Kathryn Hansen/NASA)

New findings coming out of a NASA-sponsored expedition off the coasts of Alaska discovered a massive algal bloom in this polar region as well. Contrary to Hawking’s study, the ICESCAPE expedition conducted by NASA in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas determined the growth in algae was a product of younger and thinning ice. Because of the changes in ice density due to Alaska’s warming climate, more sunlight is able to reach the water underneath the ice packs, according to researchers on the expedition. Therefore, the environment is more favorable for the phytoplankton.

Historically, expanding algae populations in other parts of the globe have generated many negative side effects. For example, the decay of algae during a bloom can suck nutrients and oxygen out of the water creating a dead zone. These low-oxygen areas reduce the productivity of wildlife, decrease their productive capacity, and can even kill them. Further, humans experience the effects of algal blooms through the ingestion of toxic substances via shellfish.

Yet, in the wake of information about the connection of algae growth and a warming world, studies are taking more effort to explore the positive consequences of algal blooms. A study conducted by the USGS Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution proposes that increases of phytoplankton in polar regions will serve as a new food source for wildlife and will offer increased carbon capture in these areas. The greater numbers of phytoplankton, the greater volume of carbon the population will consume during photosynthesis. Some scientists believe an increasing number of algal blooms will deplete carbon stores in the ocean, resulting in greater absorption of atmospheric carbon by the sea. Additionally, when the phytoplankton die, they often retain much of the stored carbon and carry it down to the ocean floor.

Scientists are not certain how the interplay between phytoplankton and ocean carbon will develop because ocean uptake of carbon (especially, in the deep water) can occur on a long timescale, and because it is not yet clear how much carbon is retained versus released during algae death.

With all of this in mind, scientists are hopeful that the correlation of glacial melt, encouraging environments, and algal growth will have a net-positive effect. Further study of this natural bioengineering project will definitely aide scientists in understanding climate change trends.

 

Far below the ice of a distant moon: Life?

An artist's impression of the European Space Agency's JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)
An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)

Mars rovers have been tested in Death Valley and Peru. Apollo astronauts used Meteor Crater in Arizona to simulate walking on the moon. Now glaciers have their part to play as stand-ins for outer space.

The Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is the destination, Alaska’s Matanuska glacier is the training ground. Scientists think that an ocean of liquid water exists below Europa’s ice-covered surface. To practice getting to it, NASA researchers are testing a robotic probe called VALKYRIE that can use a laser-powered drill to bore down into the Alaskan glacier.

A separate group of researchers (this time from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is working on a rover that can swim around underneath the ice. Like the VALKYRIE team, the ice rover is also doing its testing in Alaska.

What’s at stake for projects like these might turn out to be the greatest scientific discovery yet: life outside of earth.

Recently, President Obama requested $15 million to begin developing a mission to Europa for NASA’s 2015 budget. Last month, NASA issued proposals for science equipment on the eventual Europa probe, though it remains to be seen if either the laser drill or the ice rover will make the cut. The mission is tentatively scheduled for the mid-2020s. The European Space Agency is also planning a flyby mission, which will be expected to launch in 2022.

When the two NASA Viking probes landed on Mars in the 1970s, one of the primary mission goals was to search for life outside of Earth. When none was found, attention slowly shifted to Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, as the likeliest source of extraterrestrial life in the solar system.

http://www.dvidshub.net/image/702430/double-ridges-dark-spots-and-smooth-icy-plains-europa#.U-uAwVbCWTM
Brown ridges crisscross Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Scientists believe a ocean lies beneath the surface that might harbor life. (NASA/PLAN-PIA01641)

Europa’s relatively smooth, icy surface is marked by thousands of reddish-brown scratches, as if someone dragged a rusty fork across a cue ball. Many scientists believe a giant ocean exists just below the ice, made warmer by the tidal pull from Jupiter, which creates friction that generates ice-melting heat. In these relatively temperate waters, alien creatures might be swimming. Life on Europa has been the speculation of science fiction for decades, from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1987 novel 2061: Odyssey Three to the more recent movie Europa Report.

Both the NASA and the ESA missions will try to prove whether or not there is an ocean beneath the surface. Europa does emit water vapor plumes frequently in the same manner that geysers on Earth do. If the ocean turns out to exist, it would contain twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, according to the NASA website.

Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska's Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa's thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)
Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska’s Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa’s thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)

Most scientists and researchers agree that while Mars may have once supported life, Europa may support life right now. Whatever the eventual missions find near Jupiter, there will be a need to run tests on our planet’s own glaciers, conveniently located only a few thousand miles from NASA’s headquarters.