She will do research on life under the last ice of the Arctic

01 July, 2021

On July 15, Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm will go into quarantine together with 38 colleagues. Eight days later, they will board the icebreaker Oden, a research vessel that will take scientists to the northernmost point of the Earth: the Arctic. Once in place, they will investigate the Arctic’s last solid ice, which is melting away at a furious pace.

“No one else has done the research we do now. No other researcher has been to this area, which is larger in area than Sweden, so it is a large area we will try to map, says Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm over video link.

Oden will not return to Sweden until the end of September. The researchers are gone for seven weeks, which for Pauline is not enough:

“Ideally, you would like to be there for several years. Research in this area is urgent now, as the ice is disappearing at a furious rate. Climate scientists warn that the North Pole will be ice-free by 2050. Then we will only have ice in the Arctic during the winter season, as in the Baltic Sea.

Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm is professor of marine ecology at Stockholm University and research leader of the expedition. In addition, she is an expert on the Central Arctic for the European Commission, which has given her four million euros to investigate the Centalarctic ecosystem.

“We don’t know today what kind of animals live there. We have previously only observed small red streaks on sonar that we believe to be fish.

On July 23, the research vessel will go to the Central Arctic. It is the area on the map marked as CAO, which stands for Central Arctic Ocean.

Want to understand what the ecosystem will look like in the future

On board the icebreaker there is a variety of equipment. In addition to sonar and cameras, it also carries vertical trawls and long lines with hooks. The fish that the researchers get on the hook, they want to be able to examine in detail.

“If we get them on deck, we can see how they’re doing, what they’re eating and what water temperatures they’ve lived in during their lifetime.

However, Pauline does not believe that she will find any new species of fish under the ice.

“The water is about as cold on the Arctic bottom as in other seas with the same depth. But I think the fish that are actually there may be fish that otherwise swim in the North Atlantic and Barents Sea and then follow the warmer Atlantic currents up to the Central Arctic. Maybe we’ll find polar or ice cod, but I won’t know anything until I can hold an actual fish in my hand!

During the expedition, the entire ecosystem will be investigated. Thus, research is carried out on snow, ice, bacteria, plankton and fish. In addition, the researchers will also document all the other wildlife they see at the site. Pauline is also particularly interested in what bacteria can live in the permanent sea ice and how they differ from the annual, i.e. year-bound, ice.

“If we know what kind of organisms currently live in the long-standing ice, and the annual ice, we will find it easier to understand what the Arctic ecosystem may look like in the future. And how that will change.

There may be a possibility that the bacteria Pauline finds may absorb nitrogen from the air. That would be good news for the ecosystem, she says.

“Planktonic algae cannot bind nitrogen from the air. The nitrogen, which they need to get nourishment, they can only get from the sea, which means that the sea needs to have nitrogen in it. Unfortunately, this is often in short supply. But there are bacteria that can actually bind nitrogen from the air. If we find these in the Central Arctic, we may be able to get a more nutritious ecosystem than we previously thought.

“I hope the Central Arctic becomes a marine reserve”

It will take until about 2023 before the researchers on board Oden have had time to compile, analyze and publish their results. But for Pauline, the two-year wait isn’t a very long time:

“It is important that we follow the ethical guidelines for our research so that it is done correctly. And political decisions often take longer than that.

On June 25 this year, the countries that may be interested in conducting commercial fishing in the Central Arctic (Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, Canada, the United States and the EU) signed an agreement in which they promise not to fish in the area until 2037. That deadline should give scientists a chance to map the ecosystem, so that politicians can then make a decision on whether it is worth fishing in the area in the future.

Pauline Snoeijs
Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm has been to the Arctic before. But the research she will now do is unique in the world – no one has previously conducted research in the place Pauline and her colleagues are now going to. Photo: Peter Sylvander

“I hope it won’t be interesting. Based on my research – today – there don’t seem to be a lot of fish there,” says Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm.

However, the agreement does not protect against other activities, such as oil drilling.

“I hope that the Central Arctic will become a marine reserve. Since we humans today change the entire planet, it is our duty to know exactly what it is we are changing, especially if we want a chance to survive as a species,” says Pauline.

She says that humans have previously been good at destroying ecosystems and then afterwards realizing the consequences of the actions, and then trying to manage the place.

“This time I hope we can manage a unique ecosystem before we destroy it,” she concludes.

Text: Fanny Jönsson

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