UAF scientist to lead Arctic Marine Biodiversity Observing Network creation

Sharice Walker

The University of Alaska Fairbanks will join a $6 million, multi-institutional research effort to expand understanding of the Arctic Ocean’s marine ecosystem.

UAF and several other universities and agencies are collaborating to form the Arctic Marine Biodiversity Observing Network.

The researchers will add new information about the biological diversity of the Arctic system, from microbes to whales, and will work to integrate it with already existing information and data from other ongoing studies. During the initial 5-year phase of the project, the group will focus on the Chukchi Sea. The project also will develop a model for expanding such networks to other parts of the Arctic and other national ocean regions.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Trites
Walrus are one of several marine mammals that live in the Arctic and feed on the rich seafloor communities. The diminishing sea ice in the Arctic poses a problem for these charismatic mammals as they use the ice to haul out to rest between feeding bouts.

UAF scientist Katrin Iken, a professor of marine biology in the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, will lead the project.

“We have made huge strides in our understanding the Arctic marine ecosystem over the last years and decades, but the complexity of the system makes it difficult to project how the different components of the system will be affected by climate changes and human influences,” said Iken. “What can help us in this understanding is a better scientific network that integrates all the available information and fills gaps where we still know very little.”

AMBON involves not only UAF scientists but also those from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Alaska Ocean Observing System.

benthic trawl with fish
Photo by Katrin Iken, UAF
Trawl surveys of the seafloor show a rich and diverse community of invertebrates such as shrimp, sea stars, brittle stars, and anemones as well as fish – here the marbled eelpout.

A highly competitive process selected AMBON as one of three marine biodiversity observing networks to be created in U.S. waters. It’s funded by NOAA, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Shell Exploration and Production Co. One other project focuses on the national marine sanctuaries in Florida and California, while the other involves the Santa Barbara Channel in California.

“We have assembled a team that is very experienced in Arctic research and where the partners also are tightly connected to other ongoing research projects in the region,” said Iken.

Photo by Katrin Iken, UAF
A Conductivity Temperature Depth is an instrument that allows scientists to measure hydrographic features of the water that are important to understand how the environment influences the biological communities in the Arctic. The grey tubes attached to the frame can sample water at distinct depths to measure water chemistry.

Researchers will use a variety of proven and traditional sampling tools to study the plankton, seafloor organisms, fish, birds and marine mammals as well the physical-chemical oceanographic environment. They’ll also use some new tools.

“We will add new genetic tools to study some parts of the ecosystem, such as the microbes in the water and sediment, where we have barely scratched the surface of the existing biodiversity,” said Iken.

The integration of new and existing data is an important aspect of the AMBON project.

“Change in biodiversity, and thus the ecosystem and its functioning, can only be detected if we have a baseline against which we can compare new data” Iken explained. “We are excited to work closely with the Alaska Ocean Observing System team to link our new data with existing data and make this information accessible and visible to the public.”

During the 5-year initial phase of the AMBON project, the researchers will collect new data during field seasons in the three years and will focus on data integration, synthesis and refining the observing network during the final two years.

UAF scientists involved in the project are Eric Collins, Seth Danielson, Russ Hopcroft and Franz Mueter.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Katrin Iken, 907-474-5192,