Canada counts its Arctic seaweed before it changes | Polarjournal
Superstellar vulneribilis (Photo: Canadian Museum of Nature).

At the last count, more than four decades ago, scientists found about 175 species of macroalgae (better known to you and me as seaweed) in the waters of Canada’s western Arctic. That number is expected to rise in the coming years thanks to the efforts of an ongoing research project to collect and identify as many algae species as possible before global warming changes everything.

The reason is that as the ocean warms, algae that need cold water to survive will spread northward, while species already in the Arctic will likely go extinct.

Scientists will only be able to observe how the region’s underwater ecosystem changes in response to the algae’s composition. The multi-year research program, which began in August with a five-week field season and ends Sept. 20, is focused on Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut, and seeks to obtain a complete picture of the algal species growing there and the species they support. Knowing what the ecosystem looks like today, and how it has already changed since the current collection of specimens was assembled in the 1960s and 70s, will hopefully allow us to better understand the changes.

(Map: Arctic Kelp / Université Laval)

Like most species, the thousands of species of algae have developed strategies to survive under certain conditions. In the Arctic, this has led them to adapt to the cold, nutrient-rich waters even during long periods of darkness and become enormously productive.

“Algae are the superstars of the oceans,” says Dr. Amanda Savoie, phycologist and director of the Centre for Arctic Knowledge and Exploration at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “They are an important component of coastal ecosystems, providing habitat for other marine life and providing energy as part of the food chain, but like many marine organisms, they are threatened by the impacts of climate change.”

In addition to updating the species list, Dr. Savoie and the other scientists involved in the project are searching for kelp forests. Kelp forests have been observed in many locations in the Arctic (see map above), and are expected to expand in the Arctic with increasing temperatures and more artificial light, but they have not yet been observed in Cambridge Bay, although there is evidence that they occur there.

Because of their dense cover and great biodiversity – up to 350 species, from invertebrates to mammals – kelp forests are often referred to as aquatic rainforests. Finding such a specimen as part of the museum’s research program would be “really exciting,” according to Dr. Savoie. This is a feeling that needs no explanation.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
Image shown: Canadian Museum of Nature

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