Iceberg killing fields limit huge potential for benthic blue carbon in Antarctic shallows
Climate-forced ice losses are increasing potential for iceberg-seabed collisions, termed ice scour. At Ryder Bay, West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) sea ice, oceanography, phytoplankton and encrusting zoobenthos have been monitored since 1998. In 2003, grids of seabed markers, covering 225 m2, were established, surveyed and replaced annually to measure ice scour frequency. Disturbance history has been recorded for each m2 of seabed monitored at 5–25 m for ~13 years. Encrusting fauna, collected from impacted and nonimpacted metres each year, show coincident benthos responses in growth, mortality and mass of benthic immobilized carbon. Encrusting benthic growth was mainly determined by microalgal bloom duration; each day, nanophytoplankton exceeded 200 μg L−1 produced ~0.05 mm radial growth of bryozoans, and sea temperature >0 °C added 0.002 mm day−1. Mortality and persistence of growth, as benthic carbon immobilization, were mainly influenced by ice scour. Nearly 30% of monitored seabed was hit each year, and just 7% of shallows were not hit. Hits in deeper water were more deadly, but less frequent, so mortality decreased with depth. Five-year recovery time doubled benthic carbon stocks. Scour-driven mortality varied annually, with two-thirds of all monitored fauna killed in a single year (2009). Reduced fast ice after 2006 ramped iceberg scouring, killing half the encrusting benthos each year in following years. Ice scour coupled with low phytoplankton biomass drove a phase shift to high mortality and depressed zoobenthic immobilized carbon stocks, which has persevered for 10 years since. Stocks of immobilized benthic carbon averaged nearly 15 g m−2. WAP ice scouring may be recycling 80 000 tonnes of carbon yr−1. Without scouring, such carbon would remain immobilized and the 2.3% of shelf which are shallows could be as productive as all the remaining continental shelf. The region's future, when glaciers reach grounding lines and iceberg production diminishes, is as a major global sink of carbon storage.