Seasonal Arctic lagoons granted long-term ecological research site status

by Lauren Frisch

Beaufort Lagoons bounded by ice, 2 July 2012 (Ken Dunton)

Beaufort Lagoons bounded by ice, 2 July 2012. Photo by Ken Dunton, University of Texas, Lead of Beaufort Sea Lagoon LTER.

University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers will contribute to a new Beaufort Sea Lagoon Long-Term Ecological Research Site funded by the National Science Foundation.

The Arctic Beaufort Sea coast is spotted with lagoons, which are small water bodies protected from the ocean by barrier islands.

Water enters lagoons from river runoff, wetlands and other terrestrial sources as well as from the ocean. The makeup of the lagoon varies depending on the intensity and timing of water input from these different sources.

In the Arctic, water flow in and out of a lagoon is halted for much of the winter, when the water bodies are essentially frozen over. As a result, all water flow is concentrated during peak seasons when the lagoons have open water.

“You go from a system with no connection to land and limited connection to the ocean to a system that has really high peak times of terrestrial input, and a different peak exchange with the open ocean,” said UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor Katrin Iken. “It’s that seasonality that makes them a very complex and interesting system.”

The Arctic coast is also experiencing rapid environmental change, due to factors such as melting permafrost and changing concentration of ice cover. These variables are likely to affect how, when and how much lagoons receive water input from the land. For example, if warming temperatures decrease the number of days in a year that a lagoon is frozen over, this increases the number of days that water can flow in and out of the lagoon.

Although the project will be run out of the University of Texas, Iken is leading a component of the research that focuses on understanding food web structures in the Arctic lagoons. This involves learning how critters living in these lagoons have adapted to a unique environment with such a high seasonal exchange of resources, and monitoring how they will cope with environmental change.

“We are looking at the big picture, from terrestrial input and nutrient cycling within lagoon systems to microbes and up through fish and shore birds,” Iken said. “Once you get to those higher levels in the food chain, there is also a strong connection to the local communities up there because they’re harvesting both fish and birds as a source of food.”

UAF researchers Andy Mahoney and Jeremy Kasper will also play a role in the new LTER research. Mahoney (UAF Geophysical Institute) will focus on sea ice conditions as well as dynamics in and around the lagoons. Kasper (UAF Institute of Northern Engineering) will study the complex physical oceanography of the system.

LTER sites are intended to be funded over the long-term. The program is designed so researchers can study and compare distinct ecosystems in order to generate and test fundamental ecological theories. New sites are chosen in ecosystems that are not yet represented in the program, and usually tend to be established in places where researchers have a proven track record of collecting meaningful data.

Coastal erosion near Kaktovik (Ken Dunton)

Coastal erosion near Kaktovik. Photo by Ken Dunton, University of Texas, Lead of Beaufort Sea Lagoon LTER.

Although targeted research projects have been done on the Beaufort Sea Arctic lagoons in the past, this is the first large-scale study to take place in the region.

There are 25 previously established LTER sites, including two in Alaska at Bonanza Creek and Toolik Lake. The Northern Gulf of Alaska LTER was also recently funded by the National Science Foundation with leadership by scientists at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Katrin Iken,, 907-474-5192.


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