Ice Grows Life – The Chukchi Sea, Off Alaska

Protecting Alaska’s North Shore, 70 miles out in the Chukchi Sea is a Combination of Art and Science

Not only is this phytoplankton “bloom” exceptionally beautiful (blue and green in the image),  but it is valuable beyond measure. In present and future times, while fresh clean water is more valuable than oil, a self-replenishing source of oxygen is even more essential.


A forest of blooms floats under the ice. This spectacular image came to us from CNN  published June 11, 2012, ( . As we look closer at this image, one of its best features is the composition where positive and negative is more or less indistinguishable – it is not a blue-green object on a chartreuse field, because the lighter green is perceived as the prominent object. The arrangement is random but not.

The arctic sea of Chukchi lies off Alaska, on the way to Russia. It’s  north of the Bering Sea and west of the very top of Alaska – very stark, white and cold. But it is also chartreuse green, and a churning mix of blues and ink blue-greens, deep in saturated colors arranged in abstract patterns.

A reality of a different kind – you must be at an extreme distance from it to see it. If we were at eye level with the ocean floating, the visual world would be nothing like the above green image.

The view at ocean level

Here at the water level image, it’s only blue and capped with ice and snow. During most of the year, this place appears white with the “forest” under the ice.

The Chukchi green NASA image was made by a satellite. It gives us a different perspective, the big picture of life, seeing deeper than the surface.

Chukchi Sea is teaming with oxygen-producing phytoplankton, only visible from high above – all the green and blue-green, colors we normally attribute to Earth, but this is the sea. The Earth would be  actually hundreds of feet below ocean level. Think about it – we are so accustomed to relating to the Earth for grounding. In Chukchi, Earth is not available.

In 2016, we want to check back in with our garden blooms – are they making oxygen the way they are supposed to – we all have our assignments and theirs (phytoplankton) is producing oxygen. Arctic blooms produce more oxygen than earthbound plants, worldwide.

This is an oxygen farm – This phytoplankton called polar bloom, and unlike ordinary algae. This bloom is said to be responsible for producing as much oxygen as plants do on land. This is an oxygen farm.

The key – the entire Chukchi Sea area is covered by pools of melting ice where each space acts as a skylight to magnify and focus sunlight into the sea water. This bloom is step one in the world’s food chain, but though scientific speculations are abundant, they are not conclusive. More work is needed.

Sampling melt ponds

In the summer, a U.S. Coastguard cutter, Healy, plied through the icy water to discover large amounts of fluorescing chlorophyll, and thus photosynthesis.  “At water level, under the melt ponds, it was very bright,” says Donald Petrovich, a U.S. Army geophysicist. He described the view as looking like a photographic negative.

One question is, what effect will oil drilling have on this under-ice forest. Will the introduction of human-directed technology disturb the natural photosynthesis process.

BOEM’s (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) own environmental Impact Statement warned that “there is a 75% chance of one or more large (oil) spills happening.” Environmental groups agree that Arctic drilling is much more risky than it is in warmer climes. And help will not be close at hand in an emergency; the nearest coast guard station with equipment for responding to a spill is more than 1,000 miles away.

Chukchi may be beautiful but it presents the harshest weather conditions in the world. “Currently, no proven technology exists for cleaning up a large spill in Arctic conditions.” from Beth Peluso at . ”

Determining the health of an ocean – The University of Alaska Fairbanks installed an acidification buoy in the Chukchi Sea last October. The buoy has two instrument systems, one at the water’s surface to measure acidity or alkalinity and water temperature, also levels of CO2. The second set of instruments works near the bottom where the buoy is anchored and collects similar data for comparison.

Ocean acidification results in dead zones in portions of oceans around the world.  Seawater becomes more acidic as oceans absorb CO2 like a sponge. They estimate the ocean is 25 percent more acidic now than 300 years ago. Jeremy Mathis, in charge of the project, says coastal waters around Alaska are more susceptible because of their unique circulation patterns which move the CO2 into the water.

bio-optical package

This photo shows a multi- instrument bio-optical package, placed in the Chukchi Sea, to study how light enters the ocean and is absorbed. They will be able to map the distribution of the phytoplankton. This is part of the ICESCAPE project – Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UC San Diego – studying the effects of climate change on the Arctic waters.

From the samples found in the melt ponds, collected by the Coast Guard Cutter Healey, William Balch, from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science isolated examples of diatoms.

Beauty of a diatom

Beauty of a diatom


Balch says, “Note the amazingly intricate pattern of holes (aeriolae) in the frustule. These holes are how gases, nutrients, carbon-containing molecules pass in and out of the cell.” Life in this Arctic rainforest is amazingly complicated and specialized.

We depend on the forest bloom being persistent. Scientists are not sure if the phytoplankton has always been flourishing as it does now, since the NASA photography is only relatively new. Has the forest been growing since life on the planet began, or is this process only now developing as part of a rhythm of nature, and the world’s expanding need for oxygen.

This is an an enormous  opportunity to constantly increase our supply of oxygen while we study this independent system of Nature.

chukchi bigger


For comments and questions, please contact Charlotte Wilson at