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Instability of the North Water Polynya

Posted by William Colgan on July 27, 2021
Climate Change, New Research / No Comments

We have a new study in the current issue of Nature Communications. It looks at the stability of the North Open Water polynya over the past five millennia. The North Open Water – or ‘Pikialasorsuaq’ in Greenlandic – is a portion of northern Baffin Bay that is kept sea ice free year-round by atmospheric and oceanic currents. The North Open Water is one of the most biologically productive areas of the Arctic Ocean and has been described as a ‘regional supermarket’ because of the abundance and diversity of country foods that it supports.

Figure 1 – The location of the North Open Water polynya and core sites. Inset images show examples of June sea ice conditions within (top) and without (bottom) the Kane Basin Ice Arch.

In the study, we reconstruct the stability of the polynya – meaning the persistence of sea-ice free conditions over time – using two core records. The first core is an off-shore marine sediment record from beneath the heart of the polynya. The second core is an on-shore lake record from the southeast edge of the polynya, near Pituffik (Thule Air Base). The marine core was analyzed for changes in organic carbon and other indicators of biological productivity over time. The lake core was analyzed for changes in organic compounds associated with bird poop (Little Auk) over time.

We find that when the North Open Water stabilized c. 4400 years ago – meaning persistent and productive open water – Little Auk arrived at the lake. This arrival of Little Auk aligns with the onset of human settlement in Greenland inferred by previous studies. Conversely, when there was a downturn in the stability and productivity of the North Open Water between c. 2000 and 1200 years ago, we find less evidence of Little Auks. This less productive period also aligns with a previously inferred period of human abandonment of Greenland.

Figure 2 – Conceptual model of polynya stability and human migrations over the past five millennia.

Looking towards the future, we suggest that the Kane Basin Ice Arch – which forms the northern border of the polynya – will become less stable under climate change. This means that the ice arch will collapse more regularly, as has been observed over the recent satellite record, allowing sea ice to flow south into the North Open Water. This influx of sea ice will likely result in a less stable and less productive polynya.

My main contribution to this study was helping to analyze the many different individual marine and lake time series to resolve common marine and lake signals to intercompare over the past five millennia. In this case, that meant writing a Monte Carlo code to account for not only the measurement uncertainty, but also the dating uncertainty, of the samples comprising each time series.

Figure 3 – Measurements of ‘heavy nitrogen’ (N15) in the lake core, which is a proxy for Little Auk presence. Top: Measurement and dating uncertainty for each sample. Bottom: Monte Carlo probabilities of changing N15 through time.

Finally, a neat aspect of this study is that it is ‘open science’. This means that in addition to the article being open access, all the underlying data and code are also freely available in this data repository. This includes the Monte Carlo time-series analysis code, which may hopefully be useful for other similar application of along-core dating uncertainty.

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