A microscopic view of the Arctic

The museum recently launched a new multimedia Web site, ExpeditionArctic.ca, that reveals some of the amazing plants, animals and fossils found in the Arctic. While Polar Bears may grab the headlines, there is a “hidden” microscopic world that is a critical part of the Arctic’s biodiversity. Museum researcher Paul Hamilton explains.

When you hear the words Arctic Expedition, thoughts of cold, snow, barren lands, and rough living are likely to pop up. Yet, it is amazing to think that people have been living in the Arctic without modern conveniences for more than 4,000 years.

A large net is dropped into the ocean by Paul Hamilton, as he sits in a Zodiac.

Paul Hamilton drops a net over the side of a Zodiac in the ocean near Greenland. He was collecting algae samples for study. Image: Jamie Herring © Habitat Seven.

The experiences of today’s expeditions cannot be compared to those of people living in the Arctic 400 to 4,000 thousand years ago, but we are indeed lucky to have the opportunity to experience this amazing part of the world.

I’ve been fortunate to be conducting research in the Arctic since the early 1980s, and I can say that every new expedition is just as exciting as the first. A snowfall in the research camp during the “warm” summer is a reminder of this unique place! Most recently, I was among the team of experts that joined the Students on Ice trip to the Arctic in summer 2012. My work on that trip is featured at the museum’s new web site, ExpeditionArctic.ca.

Paul Hamilton supervises students collecting water samples from an Arctic stream.

Paul Hamilton (centre, holding plastic bag) leads students in a workshop on water quality during the 2010 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition. Image: Lee Narraway©Students on Ice.

I study algae, the small “stuff” that nobody sees. So why should anyone care about these small things scattered across the Arctic? They are the most dominant life forms in the Arctic, they produce significant amounts of energy and food, and in the fossil record they have cool stories to tell.

Here, for example, is a diatom—a small single cell protist living in the ocean that makes a silica “glass” house around itself. Why a glass “silica” house? These diatoms need energy from sunlight and a glass house is the only protective option.

Microscopic image of a round diatom.

A microscopic look at the diatom, Thalassiosira nordenskioeldii. This species belongs to a group of diatoms that is important for the marine Arctic food chain. Image: Paul Hamilton © Canadian Museum of Nature.

In the ocean, algae—especially diatoms—represent the most important form of food energy. With even a small net passing through the surface waters of the ocean, you can see colour changes in the water and masses of fine material that show the microscopic life in these cold waters.

Just imagine…the number of algae can range up to 100 million per litre of ocean water. That’s lots of food for the small invertebrates and fish!

Paul Hamilton stands in an Arctic Lake while holding a net.

Paul Hamilton holds a net to catch algae samples in a lake near Itilleq Fjord, Greenland, July 2012. Image: Justin Bastien © Canadian Museum of Nature.

There is no surprise then that fishermen and whalers have been coming to the Canadian Arctic for over 150 years to catch food (and, in essence, energy), which can be traced directly back to the algae. How can the algae be so productive? The global ocean circulation brings cold water and nutrients up from the deep, and these nutrients (as well as sunlight) fuel the growth of algae…lots of growth. As a result, Arctic and Antarctic waters are considered to be some of the most productive in the world.

This video from ExpeditionArctic.ca shows how I collect Arctic samples for study and what they can tell us.

What about the cool stories? Well, diatom shells (called valves) remain after the diatoms have ceased to exist. They remain in the bottom sediments of the oceans, lakes and ponds documenting the years of past growth and productivity.

Researchers (including myself) have been exploring these diatom shell records to uncover the living conditions of the past – which range from colder environments 150 years ago to warmer environments 5 million years ago. We can even link algae growth to mercury levels in Arctic waters.

I invite you to learn more about my work and algae in the Arctic by visiting ExpeditionArctic.ca. The discoveries and animations will surprise you. This Web site looks at everything from how researchers cope in the Arctic to a grand spectrum of life forms —from Muskox to single cell algae. The animations alone are worth the visit. And hopefully, it will give you a better appreciation and understanding of life in the Arctic—one that goes beyond simple perceptions of Polar Bears and a cold, barren landscape.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Research, Water and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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