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Winter Wonderland: Life Under the Ice Is Vibrant and Alive

Dec 01, 2016 05:59 AM EST
Even during winter, life under the ice is very active and diverse
A view of the remote Lake Kardyvach in Sochi, Russia. With lakes that allow a lot of sunlight to permeate its depths during winter, the growth of growth of algae and zooplankton on the underside of the ice is stimulated. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Scientists have broken the stereotype that winter is an off-season for lake plants, animals, and algae. Freshwater systems around the planet are incredibly active and much more complex, especially in recent times since climate change is warming lakes around the planet.

"As ice seasons are getting shorter around the world, we are losing ice without a deep understanding of what we are losing," said Stephanie Hampton, referring to the study published in the journal Ecology Letters. The lead author of the research and a Washington State University professor, Hampton asserted, "Food for fish, the chemical processes that affect their oxygen and greenhouse gas emissions will shift as ice recedes."

"While winter's lower temperatures and light levels may force lake life into a slower mode, algae and zooplankton are still abundant," stated Dr. Elizabeth R. Blood, the program director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology. An independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, The National Science Foundation funded the research.

Blood supports the idea that bodies of water are far from inactive during winter. "What will happen if lake ice cover decreases in warming temperatures? These results are a significant step in understanding what may be far-reaching changes for lake ecosystems."

With lakes that allow a lot of sunlight to permeate its depths, the growth of growth of algae and zooplankton on the underside of the ice is stimulated, providing food sources for fish at the start of their growing season and creating an ecological impact that will last for the rest of the year.

"In some lakes where the ice is really clear and there's not very much snow cover, there can be a lot of photosynthesis and a lot of productivity," according to Hampton. After considerable time studying Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake found in Russia, Hampton revealed a surprising fact. "There were some lakes in this study where the productivity in winter actually exceeded the productivity you would see in summer."

Hampton and her Russian team have also discovered "a unique little microecosystem" under the ice, with filaments hanging down from the subsurface. "Russian researchers who spend a lot of time on Baikal remind us that when you get ice, now you've got a new habitat. It can be a vast habitat extending across the entire lake."

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