Three years of spring sampling trips resulted in thousands upon thousands of data samples.
Back at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the scientists resettle into their lab. Now with all their samples in front of them, they work to draw meaning from these snippets of information. It's like putting together a puzzle, but this one will take years to finish!
Dr. Rolf Gradinger quickly discovered that there was a huge amount of ice algae production happening in the Bering Sea, even more than the team had hypothesized! Dr. Gradinger found that as much as 50% of all the algae growing in the Bering Sea in spring was growing with the sea ice.
Armed with this knowledge, Dr. Bluhm and Dr. Iken set to work decoding the food web. First, they wanted to figure out which animals in the Bering Sea feed directly on ice algae. The two scientists are especially interested in animals that feed directly on the sea ice, because changes in the food available for these species will impact animals all the way up the food chain.
To study the diet of these primary consumers they used a process called stable isotope analysis.
VIDEO: BUILDING A FOODWEB USING STABLE ISOTOPES
Learn about how researchers can piece together the marine food web by looking at muscle tissue (1:35)
With the help of stable isotope analysis, the pieces begin falling into place. Dr. Bluhm and Dr. Iken are able to connect primary consumers to the ice algae they ate using their muscle tissue.
The food chain doesn't stop there! These primary consumers can be connected to secondary consumers, who can be connected to one of the ecosystem's top predators: the polar bear. Suddenly, scientists are able to show that sea ice isn't just important to a few species; it connects animals throughout the food web!
Navigate through the food web below to see what scientists have learned about how arctic organisms are interconnected:
The evidence collected as part of this project clearly supports the team's hypothesis that sea ice is an important food source for pelagic and benthic Bering Sea communities during the springtime.
The question now is: What will it mean for marine life as sea ice conditions in the Bering Sea continue to change?
Scientists aren't sure yet, but they know that research projects like this one are important because they will provide baseline information which will help the science community quantify ecosystem changes over time.
WHO IS STUDYING SEA ICE?