Greenland study shows arctic ecosystems behave similarly to warmer climates

Published 6 September 2016

The flow of carbon through the sediment of the Arctic region is similar to that in warmer climates, say a team of Southern Cross University biogeochemists and international collaborators. The findings dispel the argument that ecosystems in different climate zones behave differently.

Working in Greenland, the researchers investigated more pathways for carbon processing within sub-arctic sediments than has previously been possible: following carbon uptake into the sediment, carbon transfer within the food web, and pathways for carbon loss from the sediment to overlying water and air. This was made possible by the world-class instruments and expertise available at Southern Cross University’s Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research.

The results are contained in the paper ‘The transformation and fate of sub-Arctic microphytobenthos carbon revealed through 13C-labeling’ published in the latest edition of the leading international journal Limnology and Oceanography.

Dr Joanne Oakes and Professor Bradley Eyre from the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research, Professor Soren Rysgaard from the Greenland Climate Research Centre and Professor Ronnie Glud from the University of Southern Denmark made up the research team.

Professor Bradley Eyre, director of the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research, said the study was important.

"The findings from this study are significant as it is commonly thought that ecosystems in different climate zones behave very differently, but this study shows that for the processes we studied sub-arctic eco-systems were very similar to temperate and sub-tropical ecosystems.”

Southern Cross University researchers have extensively studied the sub-tropical Richmond River catchment on the NSW North Coast over the past two decades.

“The similarity of carbon processing in Greenland and the Richmond River was remarkable,” said lead researcher Dr Joanne Oakes.

“The results give us some idea of the resilience of micro-organisms in the mud and their ability to adapt to very different environmental conditions.”

Understanding carbon budgets of coastal ecosystems is essential for management of current major environmental problems including global carbon emissions and budgets, coastal eutrophication, and fisheries production. Carbon is the building block of life and is an important part of many fundamental chemical processes.

“However, human activities are modifying carbon cycles at an alarming rate. Information on carbon cycling allows us to better predict the impact of these changes. This is particularly important at higher latitudes where environments are colder and potentially more susceptible to environmental change,” Dr Oakes said.

This study was funded by Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery grants DP0663159 (Professor Eyre) and DP0878568 (Professor Eyre and Dr Oakes), an ARC Linkage grant LP0667449 (Professor Eyre), and ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities grants LE0989952 and LE0668495 (Professor Eyre and Dr Oakes), and an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to Dr Oakes (DE120101290). Professor Rysgaard and Professor Glud were financially supported by research grants from Canada, Denmark and Greenland.

Photo: A fieldsite in Greenland (credit: Bradley Eyre). (High resolution images available on request.)

Media contact: Sharlene King media officer, Southern Cross University, 02 6620 3508 or 0429 661 349.