NASA's New Discovery of 'Rainforest' in Arctic Ocean Raises Concern

A NASA-sponsored expedition has made a startling discovery of diverse biological plant life at the depths of the Arctic Ocean, which is raising potential concerns for marine life.

The findings, which are being compared to "finding a rainforest in the middle of a desert," include waters richer in microscopic marine plants than any other ocean region on Earth. They were collected over a period of two years from 2010-2011 by a NASA-led oceanographic expedition.

Impacts of Climate on EcoSystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment, or ICESCAPE, explored the Arctic Ocean in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas along Alaska's western and northern coasts on board a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker ship. The expedition used optical technologies to look for impacts of environmental change in the Arctic region.

"Part of NASA's mission is pioneering scientific discovery, and this is like finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert," explained Paula Bontempi, NASA's ocean biology and biogeochemistry program manager. "We embarked on ICESCAPE to validate our satellite ocean-observing data in an area of the Earth that is very difficult to get to. We wound up making a discovery that hopefully will help researchers and resource managers better understand the Arctic."

The biological life discovered includes phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants at the base of the marine food chain. Scientists claim that the effects of global warming are thinning Arctic ice, allowing sunlight to reach deeper into the ocean and create plant blooms in places where they have never before been observed.

"If someone had asked me before the expedition whether we would see under-ice blooms, I would have told them it was impossible," said Kevin Arrigo of Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., who lead the ICESCAPE mission. "This discovery was a complete surprise."

The broader implications for the Arctic ecosystem posed by this discovery might affect migratory species like whales and birds that eat phytoplankton. Their migratory and dietary habits could possibly change due to the formation of this biological life spot.

"It could make it harder and harder for migratory species to time their life cycles to be in the Arctic when the bloom is at its peak. If their food supply is coming earlier, they might be missing the boat," Arrigo warned.