Antarctic sea ice losses drive gains in benthic carbon drawdown
Climate forcing of sea-ice losses from the Arctic and West Antarctic are blueing the poles. These losses are accelerating, reducing Earth’s albedo and increasing heat absorption . Subarctic forest (area expansion and increased growth) and ice-shelf losses (resulting in new phytoplankton blooms which are eaten by benthos) are the only significant described negative feedbacks acting to counteract the effects of increasing CO2 on a warming planet, together accounting for uptake of ∼107 tonnes of carbon per year . Most sea-ice loss to date has occurred over polar continental shelves, which are richly, but patchily, colonised by benthic animals. Most polar benthos feeds on microscopic algae (phytoplankton), which has shown increased blooms coincident with sea-ice losses . Here, growth responses of Antarctic shelf benthos to sea-ice losses and phytoplankton increases were investigated. Analysis of two decades of benthic collections showed strong increases in annual production of shelf seabed carbon in West Antarctic bryozoans. These were calculated to have nearly doubled to >2x105 tonnes of carbon per year since the 1980s. Annual production of bryozoans is median within wider Antarctic benthos , so upscaling to include other benthos (combined study species typically constitute ∼3% benthic biomass) suggests an increased drawdown of ∼2.9x106 tonnes of carbon per year. This drawdown could become sequestration because polar continental shelves are typically deeper than most modern iceberg scouring, bacterial breakdown rates are slow, and benthos is easily buried. To date, most sea-ice losses have been Arctic, so, if hyperboreal benthos shows a similar increase in drawdown, polar continental shelves would represent Earth’s largest negative feedback to climate change.