Research Article: The optical and biological properties of glacial meltwater in an Antarctic fjord

Date Published: February 6, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): B. Jack Pan, Maria Vernet, Rick A. Reynolds, B. Greg Mitchell, Zhihua Zhang.


As the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) region responds to a warmer climate, the impacts of glacial meltwater on the Southern Ocean are expected to intensify. The Antarctic Peninsula fjord system offers an ideal system to understand meltwater’s properties, providing an extreme in the meltwater’s spatial gradient from the glacio-marine boundary to the WAP continental shelf. Glacial meltwater discharge in Arctic and Greenland fjords is typically characterized as relatively lower temperature, fresh and with high turbidity. During two cruises conducted in December 2015 and April 2016 in Andvord Bay, we found a water lens of low salinity and low temperature along the glacio-marine interface. Oxygen isotope ratios identified this water lens as a mixture of glacial ice and deep water in Gerlache Strait suggesting this is glacial meltwater. Conventional hydrographic measurements were combined with optical properties to effectively quantify its spatial extent. Fine suspended sediments associated with meltwater (nanoparticles of ~ 5nm) had a significant impact on the underwater light field and enabled the detection of meltwater characteristics and spatial distribution. In this study, we illustrate that glacial meltwater in Andvord Bay alters the inherent and apparent optical properties of the water column, and develop statistical models to predict the meltwater content from hydrographic and optical measurements. The predicted meltwater fraction is in good agreement with in-situ values. These models offer a potential for remote sensing and high-resolution detection of glacial meltwater in Antarctic waters. Furthermore, the possible influence of meltwater on phytoplankton abundance in the surface is highlighted; a significant correlation is found between meltwater fraction and chlorophyll concentration.

Partial Text

The physical impact of Antarctic glacial melting on sea level variability is being extensively studied [1] [2] [3] [4]. The effects of glacial meltwater on Antarctic coastal hydrography and regional marine ecosystem are also expected to be critical to future marine productivity, but understanding of these processes is limited. Meltwater is undoubtedly a significant feature as a consequence of atmospheric and oceanic warming in climate-sensitive polar regions [5]. In addition to sea level rise, the melting of both glacial and sea ice also induces water column stratification (particularly in shallow coastal regions), where the meltwater is likely to impact light availability, as well as the function and structure of food webs [6] [7] [8]. The Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) is a region experiencing rapid climate change [9]. Mean air temperatures along the WAP have increased significantly (1–2 °C) over the last 50 years [10], which has profound consequences on sea ice, ice shelves, and glacial melting [8] [11]. This change had already triggered the collapse of Larsen ice shelf A and B east of the Peninsula [12] [13] [14].

Glacial meltwater input in fjords and other coastal Antarctic regions has been associated with the regional warming [9]. The meltwater discharge can impact surface stratification and increase nearshore turbidity which influences underwater light field as shown in this study. Meltwater can also have secondary effects on Antarctic coastal ecosystems by influencing the timing of sea ice formation and promoting phytoplankton growth [7]. In Andvord Bay, we observed a relatively weak meltwater process near the glacio-marine interface with Bagshawe glacier. Concurrent in-situ optical measurements, especially particulate backscattering coefficient and particulate beam attenuation coefficient, were found to detect the presence of fine sediment loading. The presence of sedimentary nanoparticles, in combination with more negative δ18O and lower salinity, were attributed to the presence of meltwater. These nanoparticles were likely missed by sampling with standard GF/F (0.7 μm) filters. These optical features were utilized to model the spatial distribution of meltwater fraction in Andvord Bay (Model 1). Model 2 better correlates with in-situ meltwater measurements than Model 1 due to the integrative effect of the AOP variables. The models developed in this study can potentially be applied to remote sensing datasets to detect meltwater presence at the sea surface. In addition to the optical properties of glacial meltwater, we also documented a significant temporal variability in phytoplankton concentration, where surface chl-a decreased one-order of magnitude from December to April. Phytoplankton sedimentation was observed as deep chl-a and phaeo-pigments (z > 300m), increasing towards the end of the austral growing season.




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