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Science

Arctic waters are buzzing with life during dark winter

  • Author: Asaf Shalev
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 25, 2015

Winter may cast the Arctic into darkness for months but wildlife – from predatory seabirds to bottom-feeding critters – are more active during that time than ever imagined.

Documenting the frozen waters of a fjord in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, an international team of more than 100 scientists found high levels of reproductive activity, feeding, and growing across the marine environment.

For the past three winters, the team of researchers filmed underwater, conducted biodiversity counts, and studied the stomach contents of fish and birds.

The results of the study, published this week in the journal Current Biology, refute the prior assumption that the Arctic ecosystem lies dormant during the long polar night.

"Almost all our investigations have been during the light part of the year," senior author Prof. Jorgen Berge from the Arctic University of Norway and the University Centre on Svalbard told the BBC.

"We have basically assumed that when it is dark, there is no primary production and there is no activity," he said. "The system is just waiting for the light to return."

Scientists were particularly surprised to finding many seabirds, such as auks and guillemots, remain in the North through the harshest season rather than migrate south.

One question that remains is the extent to which warming temperatures may have fostered the activities observed.

The more welcoming conditions were certainly a boon to science. With retreat of sea ice in the Arctic, the opportunity opened up to take a peek at the underwater world, Berge told the BBC. In previous decades, the fjords of Svalbard were frozen the entire winter.

As the world turns its attention to the warming Arctic for political and commercial reasons, scientists hope the new study will inform decision-making.

In the conclusion to the report they wrote that "... management of a region experiencing enhanced environmental change must begin to consider processes taking place during the polar night."

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