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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2002 Feb 19;99(4):1790-5. Epub 2002 Feb 5.

Glacial meltwater dynamics in coastal waters west of the Antarctic peninsula.

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  • 1Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, California State University, Moss Landing, CA 95039, USA.


The annual advance and retreat of sea ice has been considered a major physical determinant of spatial and temporal changes in the structure of the Antarctic coastal marine ecosystem. However, the role of glacial meltwater on the hydrography of the Antarctic Peninsula ecosystem has been largely ignored, and the resulting biological effects have only been considered within a few kilometers from shore. Through several lines of evidence collected in conjunction with the Palmer Station Long-Term Ecological Research Project, we show that the freshening and warming of the coastal surface water over the summer months is influenced not solely by sea ice melt, as suggested by the literature, but largely by the influx of glacial meltwater. Moreover, the seasonal variability in the amount and extent of the glacial meltwater plume plays a critical role in the functioning of the biota by influencing the physical dynamics of the water (e.g., water column stratification, nearshore turbidity). From nearly a decade of observations (1991-1999), the presence of surface meltwater is correlated not only to phytoplankton blooms nearshore, but spatially over 100 km offshore. The amount of meltwater will also have important secondary effects on the ecosystem by influencing the timing of sea ice formation. Because air temperatures are statistically increasing along the Antarctic Peninsula region, the presence of glacial meltwater is likely to become more prevalent in these surface waters and continue to play an ever-increasing role in driving this fragile ecosystem.

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