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Collaborative Research in IPY: Abrupt Environmental Change in the Larsen Ice Shelf System, a Multidisciplinary Approach - Marine Ecosystems - award #0732711

A profound transformation in ecosystem structure and function is occurring in coastal waters of the western Weddell Sea, with the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf. This transformation appears to be yielding a redistribution of energy flow between chemoautotrophic and photosynthetic production, and to be causing the rapid demise of the extraordinary seep ecosystem discovered beneath the ice shelf. This event provides an ideal opportunity to examine fundamental aspects of ecosystem transition associated with climate change. We propose to test the following hypotheses to elucidate the transfor mations occurring in marine ecosystems as a consequence of the Larsen B collapse: (1) The biogeographic isolation and sub-ice shelf setting of the Larsen B seep has led to novel habitat characteristics, chemoautotrophically dependent taxa and functional adaptations. (2) Benthic communities beneath the former Larsen B ice shelf are fundamentally different from assemblages at similar depths in the Weddell sea-ice zone, and resemble oligotrophic deep-sea communities. Larsen B assemblages are undergoing rapid change. (3) The previously dark, oligotrophic waters of the Larsen B embayment now support a thriving phototrophic community, with production rates and phytoplankton composition similar to other productive areas of the Weddell Sea. To document rapid changes occurring in the Larsen B ecosystem, we will use a remotely operated vehicle, shipboard samplers, and moored sediment traps. We will characterize microbial, macrofaunal and megafaunal components of the seep community; evaluate patterns of surface productivity, export flux, and benthic faunal composition in areas previously covered by the ice shelf, and compare these areas to the open sea-ice zone. These changes will be placed within the geological, glaciological and climatological context that led to ice-shelf retreat, through companion research projects funded in concert with this effort. Together these projects will help predict the likely consequences of ice-shelf collapse to marine ecosystems in other regions of Antarctica vulnerable to climate change. The research features international collaborators from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. The broader impacts include participation of a science writer; broadcast of science segments by members of the Jim Lehrer News Hour (Public Broadcasting System); material for summer courses in environmental change; mentoring of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; and showcasing scientific activities and findings to students and public through podcasts.

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