Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Changing Arctic Ocean: implications for marine biology and biogeochemistry

This programme aims to develop the knowledge needed to understand how changes in the physical environment will affect the large-scale ecosystem structure and biogeochemical functioning of the Arctic Ocean. It aims to identify potential major impacts and provide projections for the future.

£16 million
2017 to 2022
Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), German Federal Ministry of Education and Research

The scope and what we're doing

The Arctic is the fastest changing environment on the planet, supporting diverse yet still poorly understood ecosystems. Changes in the Arctic Ocean and sea ice environment will generate major but unknown changes in Arctic ecosystems. This will affect biological processes at every level of organisation, from genetics and physiology to food webs, biogeochemical cycles, species distribution and whole ecosystems.

The goal of this programme is to understand how change in the physical environment (ice and ocean) will affect the large-scale ecosystem structure and biogeochemical functioning of the Arctic Ocean. It will also look at the potential major impacts and provide projections for future ecosystem services.

The focus of this programme is on developing the fundamental and quantified understanding needed to generate projections of the impacts of future change on biological and biogeochemical processes. These processes will affect productivity, species distributions, food webs and ecosystems and the services they provide.
The aims are to develop a quantified understanding of:

  • the controls on the spatial and temporal structure and functioning of Arctic ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles
  • the impacts of multiple stressors on Arctic species, biogeochemical cycles and ecosystem structure and functioning.

Why we're doing it

The Arctic Ocean, while small in size, has extensive shelf regions. Its contribution to the global balance of carbon dioxide sinks and sources ranges from five to 14%.

Arguably the clearest evidence of change in the Arctic Ocean is the continued thinning and decline in extent of the summer sea ice. Satellite estimates of sea ice thickness and age have shown a fundamental shift from thick multi-year to thinner first-year ice, and some climate models have predicted an Arctic Ocean summer that will be free of ice within a few decades.

There has been a significant change in the persistence and distribution of open water, leading to the modification of water column structure, stability, chemistry and circulation. An increase in riverine discharges has affected the marine environment altering the nutrient balance, pollutant loads and optical properties.

Arctic marine ecosystems are responding to changes in ice, water and light availability, nutrient cycling, pollutants, and acidification. Collectively, these stressors are acting on the distribution of organisms and the structure and functioning of food webs and biogeochemical processes. Human activities in the Arctic exacerbate these stressors, for example changes in resource extraction, maritime traffic and noise.

Additionally, strong seasonality is a fundamental feature of the Arctic that determines the biodiversity and functioning of its ecosystems. As the distribution of sea ice changes, the seasonal development of the whole ecosystem shifts. Understanding the impacts of these kinds of temporal changes on individual species, biogeochemical cycles and whole ecosystems will be crucial to project the impacts of longer term decadal and century-scale change.

Current and future changes in the Arctic marine ecosystem and associated biogeochemical cycles may have implications that are far reaching for the UK environment and economy. These include direct impacts on UK climate, migratory species and industries such as fisheries and tourism. This was highlighted in the UK House of Lords select committee report ‘Responding to a changing Arctic’ (2015) and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office report ‘Adapting to change – UK policy towards the Arctic’ (2013).

This programme will contribute to addressing the Managing Environmental Change and Benefiting from Natural Resources challenges in the NERC strategy.

Who to contact

You can contact any of these people

Jessica Surma, Senior Programme Manager

Telephone: 07925 891431

Nicola Lewis, Programme Manager

Telephone: 07738 121187

Henry Burgess, Science Co-ordinator


Nicola Munro, Science Co-ordinator


Governance, management and panels

Programme advisory group

This group will advise on the delivery of the Changing Arctic Ocean research programme and will work closely with Dr Kirsty Crocket, the programme’s Science Coordinator.

Members of the programme advisory group:

  • Professor David Thomas, Bangor University (Chair)
  • Professor Rolf Gradinger, UiT The Arctic University of Norway
  • Dr C J Mundy, University of Manitoba (Canada)
  • Professor Corinna Schrum, Helmholtz Centre Geesthacht (Germany)
  • Dr Colin Stedmon, Technical University of Denmark
  • Professor Anya Waite, Alfred Wegener Institute (Germany)

Last updated: 22 March 2024

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