Before setting out to explore what's living within the Bering Sea's annual sea ice, scientists need to understand the sea ice itself.

The first important step is to understand how sea ice forms. When we think of the world’s oceans, we usually imagine large bodies of blue-green salt water. However, in the polar regions of our planet, conditions can be so cold that the surface of the ocean freezes. This happens when cool air temperatures and wind combine to chill the top layer of seawater to less than 28.8°F (-1.8°C).

Take a look at the videos below to learn more about how sea ice forms and how it fits into the Bering Sea ecosystem:

VIDEO: THE SCIENCE OF SEA ICE

 

This video explains how sea ice differs from ice formed on fresh water lakes and describes why sea ice is an important part of the Bering Sea ecosystem. (1:55)

Video Transcript

Brine channels inside the sea ice provide a unique habitat for ice algae. When sea ice melts in the spring, this algae is released into the water below. In areas like the Bering Sea, where sea ice is not always present, the spring sea ice melt is an important annual event for the ecosystem.

VIDEO: SEA ICE ALGAE THROUGH THE SEASONS

 

This animation illustrates how sea ice algae in the Bering Sea varies through the seasons. (0:55)

To help them describe different parts of the ocean from the top down, scientists divide it into zones based on types of habitats. In the Bering Sea, three habitat zones exist: the sympagic, the pelagic and the benthic.

Dr. Gradinger and his team believe that, in the spring, plants and animals in the sympagic, pelagic and benthic zones are all impacted by sea ice.  What they want to better understand is exactly how these species are impacted, by learning how they fit together in the food web.

ocean habitats

Understanding what life is like in different areas of the Bering Sea ecosystem during the springtime helps Dr. Gradinger and his team begin to predict how the ecosystem might respond if Arctic sea ice coverage continues to recede. 

The research team's curiosity with this previously understudied ecosystem led to the development of specific research questions and a project proposal that took them out on the ice!

 

 

 

WHO IS STUDYING SEA ICE?

  POLAR (adj)- Describing the area of the Earth's surface around the North and South poles.
  BRINE (n)- very salty water
  PELAGIC (adj)- in the open ocean environment
  BENTHIC (adj)- in the sea floor environment
  SYMPAGIC (adj)- in the ice environment
  PRIMARY CONSUMER (n)- an animal that feeds on plants; an herbivore
  LARVAL STAGE (n)- a juvenile stage many animals go through before they grow into adults