But global climate models agree that air temperatures in Antarctica will increase substantially in the coming decades, with corresponding changes in the speed and direction of winds and ocean currents. When Smith and his colleagues fed these global projections into a high-resolution computer model of air-sea-ice dynamics in the Ross Sea, they saw a drastic reduction in the extent and duration of summer sea ice.
The modeled summer sea ice concentrations decreased by 56% by 2050 and 78% by 2100. The ice-free season also grew much longer, with the mean day of retreat in 2100 occurring 11 days earlier and the advance occurring 16 days later than now.
Also changed was the duration and depth of the "shallow mixed layer," the zone where most phytoplankton live. "Our model projects that the shallow mixed layer will persist for about a week longer in 2050, and almost three weeks longer in 2100 than now," says Smith. "The depth of the shallow mixed layer will also decrease significantly, with its bottom 12% shallower in 2050, and 44% shallower in 2100 than now."
For Smith, these changes in ice, atmosphere, and ocean dynamics portend major changes in the Antarctic food web. On the bright side, the decrease in ice cover will bring more light to surface waters, while a more persistent and shallower mixed layer will concentrate phytoplankton and nutrients in this sunlit zone. These changes will combine to encourage phytoplankton growth, particularly for single-celled organisms called diatoms, with ripples of added energy potentially moving up the food web.
But, Smith warns, the drop in ice cover will negatively affect several other important species that are ice-dependent, including crystal krill and Antarctic silverfish. A decrease in krill would be particularly troublesome, as these are the majo
|Contact: David Malmquist|
Virginia Institute of Marine Science