Altered Sea Ice Thickness and Permanence Affects Benthic Ecosystem Functioning in Coastal Antarctica

Abstract

Antarctic sea ice and the cold waters surrounding the continent are key elements of the global climate system, influencing heat redistribution, oceanic circulation and the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, the Southern Ocean is predicted to warm by 1–6°C over the next century, altering sea ice extent, thickness and permanence. To better understand the connections between coastal sea ice conditions and the functioning of Antarctica’s unique marine benthic ecosystems, we performed manipulative experiments on the seafloor at two southwestern Ross Sea sites with contrasting sea ice conditions. Benthic systems at both study sites were net heterotrophic during the study period (early November), with primary production most likely limited by light availability rather than nutrients. There was five times more fresh algal detrital material in benthic sediments at the site with the thinner, snow-free, annually formed sea ice, relative to the site with thicker, multiyear sea ice. This elevated quantity and quality of algal detrital matter corresponded with a significantly greater rate of sediment oxygen utilization by the benthos and an altered pathway of nitrogen regeneration (tighter coupling between nitrification and denitrification). Large benthic animals (brittle stars, Ophionotus victoriae) enhanced the efflux of dissolved inorganic nutrients from the sediment to the water column and played a greater role in nutrient regeneration at the site with more food. Although changes in sea ice characteristics in the Western Ross Sea are difficult to predict at present, large benthic organisms can be expected to have an expanded role in mediating the effects of elevated coastal productivity and detritus supply on ecosystem dynamics in this part of Antarctica.

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Acknowledgments

This study was funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries’ BioRoss portfolio, and NIWA. We thank Antarctica New Zealand, Scott Base staff and Latitudinal Gradient Project affiliates for excellent logistical support. Many at NIWA contributed to sample collection and analysis; special thanks to all K082 divers. We thank Paul Dayton, Rich Aronson and an anonymous reviewer for helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of the paper.

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Correspondence to Andrew M. Lohrer.

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Author Contributions

AML, VJC and SFT conceived the study. AML and VJC performed the research. AML analysed the data. AML, VJC and SFT wrote the article.

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Lohrer, A.M., Cummings, V.J. & Thrush, S.F. Altered Sea Ice Thickness and Permanence Affects Benthic Ecosystem Functioning in Coastal Antarctica. Ecosystems 16, 224–236 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-012-9610-7

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Keywords

  • coastal Antarctic marine benthos
  • under-ice algal detritus
  • sediment oxygen demand
  • nutrient flux
  • Ophionotus victoriae