CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University and five other universities this week received an award to initiate a new Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project in the Arctic that will explore how relationships between the land and water affect coastal ecosystems along the northern Alaskan coast.
The project has been funded by a five-year, $5.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and will join 25 existing and two recently awarded coastal LTER sites that form a network of terrestrial and aquatic biomes worldwide.
Two of the new coastal sites, the Northern Gulf of Alaska and the Northeastern U.S. Shelf, are in very productive regions for fisheries. The third site, The Beaufort Sea Lagoons, is the first marine ecosystem LTER in the Arctic Ocean. The project, “Beaufort Sea Lagoons: An Arctic Coastal Ecosystem in Transition,” is supported by NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.
“It is a very rich, very important ecosystem and we don’t have a good understanding of how it works,” said Yvette Spitz, one of two OSU oceanographers who are principal investigators with the project. “There are chemicals, nutrients and other organic materials that are transported from the land to the ocean, passing through lagoons along the way.”
“One of the goals of the project is to understand how the transport of these materials is affected by changing precipitation, sea ice and melting permafrost – and what effect that has on biological productivity. These changes are presently occurring and are the most rapid in the Arctic”
Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin are leading the project, in collaboration with researchers at Oregon State, University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Texas El Paso, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and University of Toronto Mississauga.
Also participating will be young scientists from the native Iñupiat communities of Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) and Kaktovik, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“An important aspect of this LTER is the collaboration between scientists and the Iñupiat residents of the Beaufort Sea coast, which will greatly deepen our comprehensive understanding of these ecosystems,” said William Ambrose, director of the Arctic Observing Network in the NSF Office of Polar Programs.
The research will be based in Kaktovik, Utqiagvik, and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It will focus on a series of large, shallow (5-7 meters deep) lagoons that play a role in the transition of materials from land to sea.
Byron Crump, the other OSU oceanographer who is a principal investigator on the project, will focus on the smallest but most abundant organisms in the ecosystem – phytoplankton, bacteria, and other microbes.
“The old school of thinking was that bacteria were important in warmer ecosystems but not so much in colder regions like the Arctic,” Crump said. “We’re finding that isn’t true at all. Bacteria and other tiny organisms play critical roles in maintaining the food web that supports everything from krill to whales as well as important fisheries.”
Crump will look at the growth rates and genomic diversity of microbes, while Spitz will develop computer models that will evaluate how microbes, plankton and other small organisms influence the ecosystem and how they will be affected in the future under different scenarios of warming, increased precipitation and changes in groundwater.
Spitz and Crump are faculty members in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.