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Documenting the meltdown
Skidaway Institute receives major grant to research climate change
Marc Frischer of Skidaway Institute of Oceanography

The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO) has received a major grant to study the effects of climate change on Arctic permafrost, and how those effects could alter the entire ocean food chain.

During the three–year project, SkIO professor Marc Frischer and a team of researchers will take core samples from three far–north locations: Point Barrow in Alaska, the northernmost point in the U.S.; Svalbard in Sweden; and on the White Sea near Russia. SkIO has two partners in the grant, who also received shares of the nearly million–dollar National Science Foundation award: The University of Georgia and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

The main thrust of the research is in finding out how the food chain will be affected when the permafrost melts and releases large amounts of carbon into the surrounding coastal waters in the Arctic Ocean. According to Dr.

Frischer, the meltdown could lead to a biological “war over nitrogen,” a scenario he details below.

Dr. Frischer has 20 years experience in his field, with over a decade of work in Arctic environments. We spoke to him last week.

This is not a small grant. Does an award of this magnitude signal a more serious attitude toward funding real climate change research?

Marc Frischer: Certainly at the highest levels, interest in climate change has reached a new high. There are congressional mandates to place more research in climate-related work. But they’ve left the decision about what is climate-related up to the agencies. There’s a very strong mandate from the top.

For the extreme layman, please explain the point of the research this grant will fund.

Marc Frischer: The rise in temperature in particular is causing the permafrost to begin to melt, and that’s definitely happening. We see to a meter down in the surface annual thawing of permafrost in the Arctic. That stuff is all organic material and has potential to be released into the ocean.

All living organisms have to have a whole collection of nutrients. A cell is made out of protein and has to have a certain amount of carbon, certain amount of nitrogen, sulfur, etc. To make a cell you have to have the right amounts of those ingredients. What seems to be happening is there is a surplus of carbon without the requisite amount of nitrogen to make all the cakes and cookies that the food web is. Then the question becomes what’s going to happen to that excess carbon, and whether it gets incorporated into living organisms will depend on those organisms’ ability to gather, to scavenge, all the rest of the ingredients.

And the big one is nitrogen. We call that a macronutrient because it’s required in fairly large concentrations.

So what’s the hypothesis you’re testing in this research?

Marc Frischer: Our fear is that bacteria — and not the phytoplankton, the green algae that forms the very base of the food web, that ends up in whales and fish and things we like — because they’re smaller and have more efficient enzyme systems and because they’re typically not limited by nitrogen but by carbon, will take advantage of all this new carbon availability, and then start outcompeting all the green stuff for the nitrogen. So we’re going to grow a whole lot of a really undesirable kind of biomass. That then restructures the whole food web.

So the worst case scenario is massive species die–off.

Marc Frischer: Species replacement, really. We’ll get a lot of jellyfish instead of salmon, that kind of thing.

How do you deal with the ongoing, largely political debate over climate change? Do you just keep your head down and concentrate on the data, or do you find yourself being involved in the debate?

Marc Frischer: It depends very much on the scientist. To do good science one has to maintain as much objectivity as possible, and that forces us to be insulated. On the other hand, on this issue, especially those of us who have worked in the Arctic, we have seen it. We recognize that this information, imperfect as it is, needs to be communicated and be part of the political dialogue. So the climate change issue is pulling a lot of scientists out of their shells, and getting them to speak up a little more.

That’s interesting. I would have thought the opposite.

Marc Frischer: That’s just my own personal perspective. We look at the pace at which things are happening and how little time — if we even have enough time — to affect a difference, then we look at our work, and we say, “If this is going to have any meaning, then it needs to become part of the dialogue.”

It seems like climate change skeptics keep moving the goalposts. A few years back, they denied it was even happening. Now the debate seems to center on whether or not people are making it worse.

Marc Frischer: That’s quite true. The data is, if you look at permafrost records and ice cover records in the Arctic, it’s melting. Whether it’s human-caused or a natural phenomenon in a cycle, that’s irrelevant.

I’m a strong believer in the education process. As you point out, it seems like now, unlike 15 or even 10 years ago, the question isn’t whether climate change is happening. That’s a shift that happened over a decade or two, with the data amassing and getting dispersed in many venues, then we hit some kind of tipping point. Then we move on. That’s how the process works. Sure it’s frustrating, but if anything it motivates me more to speak and educate.

What are the working conditions like at Point Barrow? Is it sort of brutal, or is it really well–equipped for the weather?

Marc Frischer: I’ve never worked at Barrow, but from the people I’ve talked to it’s both. It’s a relatively new facility with some very competent dedicated people working there. Because that area is undergoing dramatic climate change, what’s going on there really changes every year. How much ice is getting formed or not getting formed changes every year. Some years it’s hard to even sample in the same place. Some years an iceberg crashes into the ice and makes a mountain that’s completely impassable. It’s a very dynamic environment. It’s not like going into a laboratory and doing an experiment in a test tube.

Let’s say your hypothesis is confirmed. Is it your position to recommend remedies to the situation?

Marc Frischer: It’s not my position to recommend remedies, but if our scenario is correct and we make less algae, my recommendation is we need to reevaluate and reassess the human utilization of resources. That would affect Alaskan fishing stocks and whaling practices, those kinds of processes.

And let’s say your hypothesis isn’t confirmed and the data doesn’t show your worst case is possible. What then?

Marc Frischer: That would actually be the more interesting observation, because that would mean our models and our understanding of how the ecosystem actually works is incomplete or flawed. If we observe something contrary to what we expect it means we have a fundamentally wrong understanding of the nature of how the system works.

Are scientists really able to make that kind of fundamental readjustment?

Marc Frischer: I think so. That’s how science works.