Kick-off for a new polar research project

Sampling
Credit: Paolo Verzone

The new research project YESSS – Year-round EcoSystem Study on Svalbard – is focussing on how Arctic warming is changing over the seasons in Svalbard. The team of around 30 scientists observes the life cycles, foraging and overwintering strategies of selected key species all year round and conducts experiments at the AWIPEV station on Svalbard. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the project, which is coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, with 2.7 million euros until the end of 2026.

The Arctic is warming more quickly than any other place on Earth. The melting glaciers and dwindling sea ice there have become an iconic image of climate change. But also the entire seasonal development of plants and animals is changing, possibly with serious ecological consequences.

Researchers from seven universities and research institutions met at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven from 6-8 February 2024 for the kick-off meeting for the 40-month polar research project YESSS. Under the leadership of the AWI, they want to investigate the seasonal aspects of warming in the Arctic, e.g. with respect to life cycles, foraging and overwintering. Until now, little is known about this because our understanding of such ecological processes has mainly been based on studies carried out in spring and summer. This is now set to change: YESSS stands for “Year-round EcoSystem Study on Svalbard”, so it is about year-round research being conducted on the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard. As part of the German government’s polar strategy, the Federal Ministry of Research and Education (BMBF) is funding the project with around 2.7 million euros.

When it comes to climate change, the Arctic is considered a hotspot, a kind of early warning system for impending global changes. This is due to the fact that the effects of climate change are intensified under the extreme conditions in the Arctic Ocean region. Ocean temperature has risen twice as fast as in other regions of the world. This matters because ocean warming is a stress factor for many organisms: Higher temperatures accelerate processes in the body and thus lead to greater consumption of resources. What consequences does this have for phenology in the Arctic?

“So far, there have been hardly any studies on these developments in the long and dark Arctic winter and also not in the transitional periods in spring and autumn, which are only a few days long. We now want to gain new insights with weekly measurements throughout the year,” says YESSS project leader Dr Clara Hoppe. The AWI biologist has been involved in several research expeditions to Svalbard since 2014 and also in the year-round MOSAiC expedition 2019/2020 in the Central Arctic.

Her special field of research is phytoplankton, microscopically small single-celled organisms that bind the greenhouse gas CO2 through photosynthesis and produce oxygen from water. Phytoplankton is the basis of the food web, so that changes in phytoplankton have an impact on the entire ecosystem. “We want to investigate how these organisms react to the stressor of increased water temperature during the dark months,” says Clara Hoppe.

Such season-specific experiments on temperature sensitivity will also be carried out for other key groups in the food web, for macroalgae (e.g. seaweed), molluscs (e.g. mussels), echinoderms (e.g. sea urchins) and fish (e.g. cod). The higher water temperatures are for example already attracting fish species that did not previously exist in the Arctic. Whether native species will be sufficiently resistant is largely unknown. Based on the data obtained on resilience to higher temperatures and successful overwintering strategies, the scientists will develop an ecosystem model. It is intended to identify potential “winners” and “losers” of climate change as well as temperature tipping points at different times of the year. “When linked together, these different research findings can help to assess the ecological consequences of climate change in the Arctic,” says Clara Hoppe. The YESSS project aims to develop strategic guidelines for the sustainable socio-ecological management of similar Arctic coastal ecosystems and make them available to various interest groups (e.g. indigenous and local communities or countries bordering the Arctic Ocean, as well as politicians).

The development of these governance concepts and the entire communication of the research project, including to the general public, are summarised in a separate work package of YESSS. Experts from the Ecologic Institute and the NGO constructify.media e.V. will support the scientists – a special approach that also convinced the BMBF when selecting the project.

Following a preparatory phase since September 2023 and the kick-off meeting in Bremerhaven, the actual research work in the Kongsfjord on Svalbard is scheduled to begin in summer 2024. Only around 30 people live in Ny-Ålesund, where the AWIPEV research station is located, in winter. For one year, four doctoral students will also work there for the YESSS research project, in groups of two, alternating every six weeks. They will take weekly samples on site and provide measurement results for the project in various experiments. They will be prepared for their new job far north of the Arctic Circle in various training sessions at the AWI and GEOMAR in Kiel, including protection in the event of encounters with polar bears, boat-based sampling at night and a two-day media training programme. This is because the team will regularly report on their extraordinary work in climate research on social media and attempting to appeal to a young audience. At the end of 2026, the project results will be available and presented at the largest annual Arctic conference, the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, among other events.

YESSS partners:
1 Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven
2 University of Bremen, Faculty of Biology/Chemistry & MARUM – Centre for Marine Environmental Sciences, Bremen
3 Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Department 10 Biology, Institute of Molecular Physiology, Mainz
4 University of Hamburg – Institute of Marine Ecosystem and Fisheries Sciences, Centre for Earth System Research and Sustainability, Hamburg
5 University of Constance, Limnological Institute, Constance
6 Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Zoological Institute, Kiel
7 GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Your scientific contact is Dr Clara Hoppe:
E-mail: Clara.Hoppe@awi.de
Phone: +49 471-48312096

Weitere Informationen:

http://awi.de/en/about-us/service/press.html

Media Contact

Roland Koch Kommunikation und Medien
Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

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