Two recent Wright State University graduates played an important role in an international study that shows freshwater runoff is threatening to lead to greater production of algae in the Arctic Ocean.
The study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans. The research was largely based on a scientific cruise from Alaska to the North Pole in 2015 that included Wright State alumna Alison Agather and Katlin Bowman.
Bowman earned her bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in environmental sciences from Wright State and is an oceanographer and researcher at the University of California in Santa Cruz.
Agather earned her Ph.D. in environmental sciences at Wright State in 2018 and in January completed a fellowship as a marine policy assistant with the Ocean Prediction Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service. She is currently supporting NOAA’s Weather Program Office as a program coordinator.
The study, by researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and their international colleagues, found that freshwater runoff from rivers and continental shelf sediments are bringing significant quantities of carbon and trace elements into parts of the Arctic Ocean via a major surface current that moves water from Siberia across the North Pole to the North Atlantic.
As the Arctic warms and larger swaths of the ocean become ice-free for longer periods of time, marine algae are becoming more productive. A greater abundance of trace elements coming from rivers and shelf sediments can lead to increases in nutrients reaching the central Arctic Ocean, further fueling algal production.
Nutrients fuel the growth of phytoplankton, a microscopic algae that forms the base of the marine food web. Generally speaking, more phytoplankton brings more zooplankton, small fish and crustaceans, which can then be eaten by top ocean predators like seals and whales.
Higher concentrations of trace elements and nutrients previously locked up in frozen soils are expected to increase as more river runoff reaches the Arctic, which is warming at a much faster rate than most anywhere else on Earth.
While an increase in nutrients may boost Arctic marine productivity, researchers caution that the continued loss of sea ice will further exacerbate climate warming, which will impact ecosystems more broadly.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, nonprofit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering and higher education.
In August 2015, Agather and Bowman boarded the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy at Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The 140-person crew included 50 scientists from Wright State, MIT, Florida State, Hawaii, Miami and other U.S. universities.
Only Bowman and Agather measured mercury in the water. Other scientists on board studied other elements, including arsenic, selenium and radioactive metals. One goal of the expedition was to create maps of where and in what concentrations the elements exist in the Arctic Ocean.
Chad Hammerschmidt, professor and interim chair of Wright State’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said he is proud of what Bowman and Agather accomplished at Wright State and their professional achievements following graduation.
“Katlin and Alison are becoming leaders in our field and all to their own credit. They are smart, savvy and won’t be outworked by anybody,” said Hammerschmidt. “I cherish their time as students and hope to continue collaborating with them in the future.”