Effects of sea-ice cover on marine benthic communities: a natural experiment in Commonwealth Bay, East Antarctica

Abstract

Sea-ice is a key physical driver of Antarctic marine ecosystems. Understanding ecological effects of sea-ice is particularly important given current and future climate change, but a major obstacle is the impracticality of manipulating sea-ice at a relevant scale. However, large-scale anomalous events, such as those occurring in Commonwealth Bay, East Antarctica, provide opportunities for natural experiments. Historically, katabatic winds have kept Commonwealth Bay ice-free for most of each year, but since 2010, a massive grounded iceberg has resulted in year-round sea-ice cover. We surveyed benthic communities in Commonwealth Bay approximately 3 years after continuous sea-ice cover began and found algal bed communities in severe decline. The majority (~75 %) of large macroalgae were decomposing, and the remainder were discoloured or bleached, while approximately 40 % of encrusting coralline algae were bleached. Accompanying this, the presence of invertebrates such as ophiuroids and polychaetes suggests that communities are in the early stages of transitioning to an invertebrate-dominated state. With a known start date, monitoring benthic communities in Commonwealth Bay will allow quantification of rates of benthic regime shifts in response to sea-ice cover, and improve understanding of the vulnerability of polar ecosystems to climate change.

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Acknowledgments

We thank members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013–2014 (www.spiritofmawson.com) for their support of this study. GFC was supported by a UNSW Strategic Research Grant awarded to ELJ. EMM thanks SIMS and Director PD Steinberg for additional support. Work was conducted under Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) permit number ATEP 13-14-AAE 2013.

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Correspondence to Graeme F. Clark.

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Clark, G.F., Marzinelli, E.M., Fogwill, C. et al. Effects of sea-ice cover on marine benthic communities: a natural experiment in Commonwealth Bay, East Antarctica. Polar Biol 38, 1213–1222 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-015-1688-x

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Keywords

  • Antarctic
  • Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE)
  • Benthic
  • Iceberg B09B
  • Invertebrates
  • Irradiance
  • Light
  • Macroalgae
  • Phase shift
  • Regime shift