Home » Arctic: Frozen Ocean Introduction » Ecosystem

Arctic Ocean Ecosystem
Click on the animals below to learn more.

The Arctic ecosystem has a unique, complex food web that is fashioned by its distinctive plankton, animal species, and environmental factors. Carbon also cycles through the web from atmosphere to seawater and back. Phytoplankton and algae take up carbon dioxide from seawater and transform it into the organic carbon of their tissue. Then it flows through successive levels of eating animals that convert their prey’s carbon into their own tissues or into sinking fecal pellets. Along the way, some carbon dioxide escapes back to the atmosphere through the organisms' respiration.

Abundance of Life in the Arctic

a globe highlighting the arctic and the north pole
The polar bear is the world's largest land predator, and is found throughout the Arctic. Climate change is the main threat to polar bears today. A diminishing ice pack directly affects polar bears, as sea ice is the platform from which they hunt seals. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI.

An adult walrus is huge and can weigh from 2000 to 3000 pounds. Their brownish skin is very thick and wrinkled. They have long sharp tusks and whiskers. The layers of blubber and thick skin protect the walrus from the cold wind as they lie out on the ice. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI.

An Arctic jellyfish close to the surface. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI.

juveline copepod compared to tip of pencil
A juvenile copeod compared to the tip of a pencil. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI.

Capped with a formidable ice and snow cover, plunged into total darkness during the winter, buffeted by blizzard winds, and bitterly cold, the Arctic Ocean is one of the most inaccessible and yet beautiful environments on Earth. Life here endures some of the greatest extremes in light and temperature known to our planet. Yet despite these inhospitable conditions, the Arctic Ocean is teeming with life.

Great polar bears roam the Arctic ice and swim the Arctic seas. Supporting these top predators is a complex ecosystem that includes plankton, fish, birds, seals, walruses, and even whales. At the center of this food web, supporting all of this life, are phytoplankton and algae that produce organic material using energy from the sun.

The Arctic’s extreme environmental conditions have limited our opportunities to study this complex food web. Expeditions to the remote Arctic are difficult and expensive. When we can get there at all, it is usually only in summer. Such gaps in our observations have compromised our ability to understand the food web’s intricacies and vulnerabilities—at a time when the ecosystem appears to be increasingly vulnerable.

Scientists now know that warming temperatures are affecting the Arctic Ocean, producing changes that may have cascading effects on the Arctic’s interlinked and delicately balanced food web. Changes in the food web not only threaten life in the Arctic region, they also could have impacts on Earth’s climate. Populations of Arctic plankton for example, not only provide food at the base of the food web, they also convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into organic matter that eventually sinks to the ocean bottom—effectively extracting a heat-trapping greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

—by Carin Ashjian, from Oceanus Magazine