Underwater robots have uncovered new evidence about life in the Arctic and, for the first time, revealed the moment the region's marine ecosystem springs into life after the dark winter season.

The unique data was gathered by autonomous ocean-going 'gliders' and will help marine scientists understand more about the so-called 'Arctic ', which kick-starts the ecosystem and is crucial in providing food for animals in the region.

Gliders work around the clock for months on end, taking measurements such as ocean temperature, oxygen levels and salinity. Researchers from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) have been able to observe seasonal changes as they happen in the Arctic, thanks to a continuous glider presence in the Barents Sea between January and July this year.

The gliders can also measure chlorophyll, an indication of the biological content of the water, and a rapid increase in the chlorophyll levels in mid-April this year showed the moment the spring bloom began. The data could help predict how the Arctic ecosystem will respond to climate change.

Researchers from the project will retrieve their glider on their return to the Barents Sea on board the RRS James Clark Ross in July. The cruise departs from Longyearbean, Spitsbergen on 12 June 2018 and is part of the Arctic PRIZE project, funded by the NERC Changing Arctic Ocean programme.

SAMS marine scientist Professor Finlo Cottier, who leads Arctic PRIZE, said:

This is the first time there has been a continuous monitoring of the Arctic Ocean environment through the seasons and it has given us a very clear picture of how life responds to the changing conditions.

We have seen the change from 24-hour darkness in winter to the arrival of spring when the combination of light and warming water allows an explosion of algae. This is food for tiny zooplankton, which provides energy through the food chain for all sorts of life.

However, the life cycle of the zooplankton and the spring bloom have to align for the Arctic food chain to be a success. With Arctic sea ice retreating earlier each year, the water is more exposed to the light and mixing. Is there going to be a mismatch between food availability and zooplankton life cycles in years to come?

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