Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) alumna and 2019 Cody Award winner Antje Boetius has dedicated the better part of 30 years to exploring the seemingly lifeless sea ice of the Arctic. In the course of her research, she found not only the life that surrounds it, but its role in sustaining global life. She has observed rates at which the sea ice is melting, and the subsequent changes in polar and deep-sea ecosystems, and the possible repercussions for human life.
Boetius’ work earned her SIO’s Cody Award, which recognizes outstanding scientific achievement in oceanography, ocean biosciences and Earth science by a scientist who has made significant contributions to his or her field. The Award, presented biennially, consists of a gold medal and $10,000.
In introductory remarks, Cody Award selection committee member Mark Ohman said there was a “stellar list” of finalists this year, but Boetius’ application was far above the rest.
“Antje has been described as a force of nature, whose science is transformative and compelling,” he said, calling her a “role model for other scientists.”
To celebrate her recognition, SIO hosted a public lecture July 30 at the Scripps Seaside Forum, with Boetius discussing “The Poles and Deep Seas: Protecting the Unknown Realms of Earth.”
Changing state of things
Reflecting on her decades of research, Boetius’ said: “We have a big, big problem to fix,” and she pointed out that conversations about climate change were not taking place when she was a student. During her first polar expedition in 1993 to the Siberian Seas and the Arctic, Boetius said she found “thick sea ice.” But since there were no long-term observations of this ice and its changes, and that became her mission.
“What was already dramatic by that time, was finding that within a few years, the sea-ice margin had changed from being over the shallow seas to the deep seas,” she explained. “That matters because life forms — like a walrus — have a hard time reaching the deep sea (for fishing and resting), and the thinner ice cannot support these creatures.” Since then, the ice has all but disappeared, she said.
“I wanted to go back in 2012 and sample the same sites I did when I got my Ph.D. When I was there in 1993 it was difficult to drill through the ice, but in 2012 it took three seconds.” She acknowledged that such data was still minimal in this field, even to today.
Life under the ice
In the years that followed, Boetius said she furthered her research to explore what was underneath — and protected by — the sea ice to discover the ecosystems below. In her explorations into seamounts (sub-marine mountains), she deployed robots to capture footage of the sea floor.
“There is lots and lots of life under the sea ice; you see diatoms (algae) that look like kale; gelatinous material; crustaceans; jellies; and more. For us, the amazing thing to discover for the first time, was that there was life on top of an Arctic seamount at 500 meters water depth. We were all there, even the cook, when the first sea floor pictures came up. Here we were, in the middle of the Arctic, and there was what looked like a lot of sea life. It took me a while to understand that this was the thickest assembly of (sea sponges) I had ever seen in my life.”
These sponges remain a mystery because they’re not a food source for any other sea creatures and their black-ish color cannot be explained. “The diversity of ecosystems in the Arctic is simply fantastic,” Boetius opined.
In addition to the impacts to sea life, she said the rate at which sea ice melts has a broader correlation to climate change: “If you think about the places where you see sea ice and glaciers, they look like places that are not for humans. But the (rate of melting sea ice) has to do with us and our civilization. The melting affects the marine mammals and the microbes, and we can measure how everything is affected.”
She went on to explain there is carbon dioxide under glaciers that is released when the ice thins or melts.
“We are not able to predict right now how fast the ice sheets will melt and raise the sea level,” she said, “But the most worrisome data I see suggests that everything is thawing on land three times faster than we thought five years ago, transporting massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the ocean for hungry microbes to eat and then make more carbon dioxide (which can contribute to ocean acidification).
“You can try really hard to measure change and see that the absence of sea ice, the reduction of sea ice, the warming of the ocean, changes everything from the ocean to the deep sea. It might take a few years, but everything changes.”
She concluded her presentation by encouraging fellow scientists to keep researching, asking the important questions and continuing to have the conversations she didn’t have.