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Arctic Ocean Expedition Reveals Surprising Diversity and Abundance of Life

The Census of Marine Life is a 10-year, $1 billion global effort to take stock of the biodiversity of the world's oceans. It is an immense task involving research teams around the globe to explore the largely unknown undersea world. A recent expedition to probe the region off Canada's Arctic coast has revealed surprising biological diversity in one of the most extreme environments on the planet.

The Canada Basin is a world capped with ice. A team of 45 scientists from the United States, England, Russia and China explored this vast and remote area on a 30-day expedition in June and July aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy.

Chief scientist and University of Alaska marine biologist Rolf Gradinger says the 24-hour Arctic summer daylight allowed teams to work in shifts, deploying SCUBA divers, remote-operated vehicles, and photo platforms - to reach depths greater than 2,500 meters, where the remote-operated vehicles cannot go. They collected samples and recorded what they saw from the surface to the ocean floor.

"What we saw was just stunning," Rolf Gradinger says, adding that the life beneath the ice was surprisingly abundant and diverse, from the tiniest bacteria and small crustaceans to fish. "We also saw dozens of different species of jellyfish," he says. "We saw other fish close to the sea floor and near the seafloor we saw many sea cucumbers. We saw Bristol worms. We saw sea stars. And it is not only that there are various different species. Also they are very colorful."

Some are new to the Canadian Basin region and some are new to science. "We are convinced that we have discovered 7 new species during this cruise," says Mr. Gradinger, who was surprised by the abundance and range of species under the Arctic ice. "Seeing these video feeds and pictures from the sea floor and seeing all this diversity down there and the high abundance … I remember our (sea bottom specialist) colleague, Ian MacDonald, from Texas A&M University -- in some of the pictures he saw 70, 80, 90 sea cucumbers in one picture frame. These are very high densities at very deep locations. This was very unexpected (for) us."

The research is part of the Census of Marine Life, which began documenting ocean biodiversity in 2000. Ron O'Dor - chief scientist for the 10-year effort - says the Arctic information helps us better understand the impact of human activity on ocean ecosystems. "We are in fact colonizing the ocean," he says. "The oil companies move further and further off shore looking for oil. We are fishing in some of the most distant places in the sea. There are major fisheries on seamounts around the world. And, so people are coming more and more reliant on the resources of the ocean, but we don't know enough about them to manage them."

Rolf Gradinger agrees. He says Arctic sea ice cover has declined 3% every decade since 1979, and research can provide baseline data to document global climate change. "And the question arises, what will be the biological impact of that, of the warming of the Arctic Ocean, of the shrinking of the sea ice cover?" he asks. "We really need to go into the region and take samples and analyze the diversity of life in these regions carefully. That has not been done to the extent what we can answer those questions. What we find in the Arctic (today will allow us to) make a comparison in 10, 20 or 30 years on the observed changes."

The Census of Marine Life plans future expeditions to the Arctic and will coordinate similar work in Antarctica projected to begin in December, 2007.