Researchers crack open ice to find tiniest Arctic creatures

“Jelly! Jelly!” scientists cried out excitedly. One jellyfish was tangled in their net as they pulled it out of the Arctic sea ice.

Scientists traveled to Barrow, Alaska to crack open the ice, looking for the tiniest members of the Arctic food chain: sea ice algae. The microscopic organism hides in the ice during the winter. When the spring sun warms up the ice, the sea algae blooms and trickles into the water.

They pull sea creatures out of the water, testing them to find out which animals feed on the algae. That jellyfish is a hopeful confirmation of Craig Aumack‘s idea: Algae are the base of all Arctic marine life.

“It was like ‘Wow, are jellyfish even adapted to swim so close to the bottom and drag their oral tentacles because they’re feeding on the algae that collect along the bottom during this season?'” said Aumack, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University.

The tiny sea algae may form the base of the food chain for animals from jellyfish to polar bears. But dwindling snowfall could mean earlier blooms for the algae, and big changes for the Arctic animals that feed on them. Miles O’Brien has more on this story for the National Science Foundation series “Science Nation.”*

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.