Reviews and syntheses: Ice acidification, the effects of ocean acidification on sea ice microbial communities (update)

Sea ice algae, like some coastal and estuarine phytoplankton, are naturally exposed to a wider range of pH and CO2 concentrations than those in open marine seas. While climate change and ocean acidification (OA) will impact pelagic communities, their effects on sea ice microbial communities remain unclear.

Sea ice contains several distinct microbial communities, which are exposed to differing environmental conditions depending on their depth within the ice. Bottom communities mostly experience relatively benign bulk ocean properties, while interior brine and surface (infiltration) communities experience much greater extremes.

Most OA studies have examined the impacts on single sea ice algae species in culture. Although some studies examined the effects of OA alone, most examined the effects of OA and either light, nutrients or temperature. With few exceptions, increased CO2 concentration caused either no change or an increase in growth and/or photosynthesis. In situ studies on brine and surface algae also demonstrated a wide tolerance to increased and decreased pH and showed increased growth at higher CO2 concentrations. The short time period of most experiments (< 10 days), together with limited genetic diversity (i.e. use of only a single strain), however, has been identified as a limitation to a broader interpretation of the results.

While there have been few studies on the effects of OA on the growth of marine bacterial communities in general, impacts appear to be minimal. In sea ice also, the few reports available suggest no negative impacts on bacterial growth or community richness.

Sea ice ecosystems are ephemeral, melting and re-forming each year. Thus, for some part of each year organisms inhabiting the ice must also survive outside of the ice, either as part of the phytoplankton or as resting spores on the bottom. During these times, they will be exposed to the full range of co-stressors that pelagic organisms experience. Their ability to continue to make a major contribution to sea ice productivity will depend not only on their ability to survive in the ice but also on their ability to survive the increasing seawater temperatures, changing distribution of nutrients and declining pH forecast for the water column over the next centuries.

McMinn A., 2017. Reviews and syntheses: Ice acidification, the effects of ocean acidification on sea ice microbial communities. Biogeosciences 14, 3927-3935. Article.

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