MBA Senior Research Fellow Dr Michael Cunliffe is playing a lead role in an international project examining the impact of climate change on the Arctic Ocean.
Micro-ARC, co-led by Dr Cunliffe, is a three-year research project that is part of the £12 million NERC Changing Ocean programme, which will investigate the effects of climate change on the marine biology, ecosystems and the biogeochemistry of the Arctic Ocean. Micro-ARC is one of a number of projects announced as part of the Natural Environment Research Council’s Changing Arctic Ocean (CAO) programme, with the research being co-funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
There are major gaps in our knowledge of the links between Arctic microbial ecosystem structure and function across a broad range of sea-ice environments. Through a multi-location and multi-seasonal cruise programme, and a focus on microbial ecosystems, Micro-ARC will address these gaps and improve our understanding of how short and long term environmental changes are affecting the polar region.
Dr Cunliffe is a Senior Research Fellow at the Marine Biological Association and a Lecturer in Marine Microbiology at the University of Plymouth. He said: “The Arctic is going through major changes as a result of global climate change and how we interpret these changes is going to alter dramatically thanks to advances in research. Our project will examine marine life at the base of the food chain because the impact of environmental changes on them will have repercussions throughout the entire Arctic ecosystem.”
Samples will allow the team to quantify the impacts of Arctic seasonality and, through a combination of observations and modelling, they will analyse the underlying mechanisms that impact microbial dynamics and subsequent organic matter cycling.
As well as Dr Cunliffe, Micro-ARC’s multi-disciplinary team includes scientists from GEOMAR, an ocean research centre based in Kiel, Germany. It has expertise in marine microbial ecology, organic matter biogeochemistry, polar plankton ecology, and ecosystem modelling.
Through the project, Dr Cunliffe will be emulating another Plymouth scientist Edward W. Nelson (see below), who worked at the Marine Biological Association before joining the Terra Nova expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. He said: “There are pictures of Nelson sampling plankton in the Antarctic, and what I will be doing is kind of a modern version in the Arctic. This is also my first foray into polar science, and it is exciting to be part of a project that could break new ground when it comes to our knowledge of these regions. It will be crucial to assessing how the Arctic adapts to changes in temperature through the year, and give us clues as to the impact they could have on the rest of the planet.”
The MBA is also involved in two of the existing projects: ARISE which is looking at how environmental change affects Arctic food webs, and DIAPOD which seeks to understand the vertical migration of Calanus copepods, which are central to Arctic food webs.
Edward W. Nelson (1883-1923) came from the Shetland Islands. He joined Scott’s last polar exploration, the Terra Nova Expedition (1910 – 13), as the shore party biologist. During his time at the shore base he took samples of plankton and fish through holes in the sea ice but he was also a regular member of sledging expeditions into the interior, including the one that eventually found the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. One of the sledges Nelson used during the Terra Nova expedition now belongs to the MBA and can be seen at the Plymouth City Museum.
Nelson’s plankton work began at the Marine Biological Association with the Director, E. J. Allen in 1901 and continued after the Terra Nova expedition until 1921. By isolating individual cells, Allen and Nelson were the first to culture persistent strains of planktonic diatoms in the laboratory. These pioneer studies opened the way to present-day research into the role of phytoplankton, and to the commercial development of mariculture by making available the means of providing food for shellfish. Today, the MBA Culture Collection provides phytoplankton to academic institutes and commercial users worldwide.
 Allen & Nelson, 1910