Under the Ice

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Charlie Alikatuktuk, a professional clam-diver from Qikiqtarjuaq, prepares to submerge beneath the sea ice. Global Warming 101 Expedition Team members and students from the local school stand around to watch.

Although air temperatures around 20°F (-6°C) make the day relatively balmy for the Arctic in March and despite the fact that Charlie is wearing a dry-suit with long underwear underneath, those standing around can’t help but feel a bit of dread at the thought of his impeding dive beneath the ice.

Charlie’s dives usually last about thirty to forty-five minutes. He may do up to three dives a day. He collects clams off the bottom, putting them in a basket strapped to his body and hauling them up to the ice hole with the help of a rope as a guide.

Under the ice a world exists that few people ever get to see. Seals and fish are the most noticeable occupants. The most numerous inhabitants, however, are the microscopic organisms that form the base of the food web. Ice algae clings to the underside of the sea ice, coloring it a brownish-green.

As warmer weather causes the sea ice to melt, a thick layer of relatively fresh (not salty) water forms below the remaining ice. Researchers have found that this freshwater layer is one-third deeper than it was twenty years ago.

Freshwater algae is now replacing the saltwater algae that once covered the underside of the ice. The freshwater algae is not as productive as the saltwater algae it replaces. Except for below-the-ice divers like Charlie and a handful of researchers, most people do not see these changes.

Elizabeth

(Source: ACIA, 2004)

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