- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

The Arctic may not be quite so troubled as some advocacy groups would have us believe.

According to the unprecedented “Census of Marine Life” released by a four-country team of scientists yesterday, the isolated, frigid waters on the top of the planet are teeming with creatures of many persuasions.

“The Ice Oceans abound with life,” notes the inventory compiled by researchers who spent a month above the Arctic Circle, returning with thousands of specimens including octopus, squid, cod, snails, jellyfish, clams and shrimp.

The “historic” event, the report states, “revealed a surprising density and diversity of Arctic Ocean creatures, some believed new to science.”

The 24 researchers from the United States, Canada, Russia and China were understandably enthusiastic.

“The density of animals is much higher than expected,” said marine ecologist Bodil Bluhm of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). “It now appears possible to confirm that the rich biodiversity surprising deep-sea explorers worldwide exists as well in deep Arctic waters.”

How deep? The research team, journeying aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, investigated depths of up to 11,000 feet using a remotely operated underwater probe, a camera platform and — yes — nets and traps.

Sheltered below ice up to 60 feet thick, the extreme but remarkably calm depths was virgin territory — no human had ever set eyes on them. The explorers included under-ice scuba divers manning video cameras, but still tethered to the surface for safety.

Marine scientist Russ Hopcroft credits modern technology for the breakthrough findings. “The few explorers in this area before us had no adequate tools to collect or see these creatures,” he says.

The new cast of sea critters included a brilliant orange worm, some powerfully clawed shrimp and a graceful “feather star” anemone. Many of the startled scientists recorded their thoughts upon encountering uncommon creatures from uncommon depths:

“Seeing something for the first time is special… Perhaps it is only a strange jellyfish,” notes California State University Monterey Bay biologist Kevin Raskoff, describing a four-tentacle, 12-stomach Narcomedusae in a July 5 personal journal entry, which is posted online at www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov.

Mr. Raskoff continues, “But to me it represents all of the reasons we are here in the Arctic, striving to discover and understand this alien sea.”

His journal — and that of several other researchers — are posted online by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funded and coordinated the expedition.

“Some of the species that we saw are completely new to science, they have not been described in any area of the Earth so far,” says UAF biologist Rolf Gradinger, who served as chief scientist on the voyage.

Among their prizes was the jellyfish and three kinds of bristle worms.

The trip had its frantic moments. The team operated round-the-clock, exploring 14 locations along the Canadian Basin portion of the 5.4 million-square-mile Arctic Ocean, once only known to cartographers as “The Frozen Sea.”

“This is a benchmark, and we hope that in the next 10, 20 or 30 years these kinds of studies will be repeated to see whether any kinds of changes have occurred in the composition and the abundance of animal life,” Mr. Gradinger says.

The group has now set their sights on another cold ocean, this at the very bottom of the planet — and at a depth of up to 16,000 feet.

From December 2007 to March 2008, some 200 scientists from 30 countries will count heads — and tails — for the landmark Census of Antarctic Marine Life, to be funded by the United Nations, six other international science groups and through private donations.

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