A Genetic View into Past Sea Ice Variability in the Arctic

Arctic sea ice decline is the exponent of the rapidly transforming Arctic climate. The ensuing local and global implications can be understood by studying past climate transitions, yet few methods are available to examine past Arctic sea ice cover, severely restricting our understanding of sea ice in the climate system. The decline in Arctic sea ice cover is a ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the state of our climate, and if greenhouse gas emissions remain unchecked, summer sea ice loss may pass a critical threshold that could drastically transform the Arctic. Because historical observations are limited, it is crucial to have reliable proxies for assessing natural sea ice variability, its stability and sensitivity to climate forcing on different time scales. Current proxies address aspects of sea ice variability, but are limited due to a selective fossil record, preservation effects, regional applicability, or being semi-quantitative. With such restraints on our knowledge about natural variations and drivers, major uncertainties about the future remain. I propose to develop and apply a novel sea ice proxy that exploits genetic information stored in marine sediments, sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA). This innovation uses the genetic signature of phytoplankton communities from surface waters and sea ice as it gets stored in sediments. This wealth of information has not been explored before for reconstructing sea ice conditions. Preliminary results from my cross-disciplinary team indicate that our unconventional approach can provide a detailed, qualitative account of past sea ice ecosystems and quantitative estimates of sea ice parameters. I will address fundamental questions about past Arctic sea ice variability on different timescales, information essential to provide a framework upon which to assess the ecological and socio-economic consequences of a changing Arctic. This new proxy is not limited to sea ice research and can transform the field of paleoceanography.