DISCOVERY 2010: Spatial and temporal variability in a dynamic polar ecosystem
The Scotia Sea has been a focus of biological- and physical oceanographic study since the Discovery expeditions in the early 1900s. It is a physically energetic region with some of the highest levels of productivity in the Southern Ocean. It is also a region within which there have been greater than average levels of change in upper water column temperature. We describe the results of three cruises transecting the central Scotia Sea from south to north in consecutive years and covering spring, summer and autumn periods. We also report on some community level syntheses using both current-day and historical data from this region. A wide range of parameters were measured during the field campaigns, covering the physical oceanography of the region, air–sea CO2 fluxes, macro- and micronutrient concentrations, the composition and biomass of the nano-, micro- and mesoplankton communities, and the distribution and biomass of Antarctic krill and mesopelagic fish. Process studies examined the effect of iron-stress on the physiology of primary producers, reproduction and egestion in Antarctic krill and the transfer of stable isotopes between trophic layers, from primary consumers up to birds and seals. Community level syntheses included an examination of the biomass-spectra, food-web modelling, spatial analysis of multiple trophic layers and historical species distributions. The spatial analyses in particular identified two distinct community types: a northern warmer water community and a southern cold community, their boundary being broadly consistent with the position of the Southern Antarctic Circumpolar Current Front (SACCF). Temperature and ice cover appeared to be the dominant, over-riding factors in driving this pattern. Extensive phytoplankton blooms were a major feature of the surveys, and were persistent in areas such as South Georgia. In situ and bioassay measurements emphasised the important role of iron inputs as facilitators of these blooms. Based on seasonal DIC deficits, the South Georgia bloom was found to contain the strongest seasonal carbon uptake in the ice-free zone of the Southern Ocean. The surveys also encountered low-production, iron-limited regions, a situation more typical of the wider Southern Ocean. The response of primary and secondary consumers to spatial and temporal heterogeneity in production was complex. Many of the life-cycles of small pelagic organisms showed a close coupling to the seasonal cycle of food availability. For instance, Antarctic krill showed a dependence on early, non-ice-associated blooms to facilitate early reproduction. Strategies to buffer against environmental variability were also examined, such as the prevalence of multiyear life-cycles and variability in energy storage levels. Such traits were seen to influence the way in which Scotia Sea communities were structured, with biomass levels in the larger size classes being higher than in other ocean regions. Seasonal development also altered trophic function, with the trophic level of higher predators increasing through the course of the year as additional predator-prey interactions emerged in the lower trophic levels. Finally, our studies re-emphasised the role that the simple phytoplankton-krill-higher predator food chain plays in this Southern Ocean region, particularly south of the SACCF. To the north, alternative food chains, such as those involving copepods, macrozooplankton and mesopelagic fish, were increasingly important. Continued ocean warming in this region is likely to increase the prevalence of such alternative such food chains with Antarctic krill predicted to move southwards.