Project Summary

Fjord Ecosystem Structure and Function on the West Antarctic Peninsula – Hotspots of Productivity and Biodiversity? (FjordEco Project)

PIs Craig Smith, Brian Powell, and Mark Merrifield (University of Hawaii at Manoa),  Maria Vernet (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), and Peter Winsor and Martin Truffer (University of Alaska Fairbanks)

Marine communities along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) are highly productive ecosystems which support a diverse assemblage of charismatic animals such as penguins, seals, and whales as well as commercial fisheries including for Antarctic krill. The WAP also contains many fjords (deep estuaries carved by glacial ice) with active glaciers entering the ocean;  these fjords appear to be intense, potentially climate sensitive, hotspots of biological production and biodiversity. Because of intense biological activity and abundant charismatic fauna, these fjords are also major destinations for a large Antarctic tourism industry. Nonetheless, the structure and dynamics of these fjord ecosystems are very poorly understood.

The FjordEco project is an integrated field and modeling program designed to evaluate physical oceanographic processes, glacial inputs, water column community dynamics, and seafloor bottom community structure and function in these important yet little understood fjord systems. These Antarctic fjords have characteristics that are substantially different from well-studied Arctic fjords, likely yielding much different responses to climate warming. FjordEco is designed to provide major new insights into the dynamics and climate sensitivity of Antarctic fjord ecosystems, highlighting contrasts with Arctic sub-polar fjords, and potentially transforming our understanding of the ecological role of fjords in the rapidly warming west Antarctic coastal marine landscape. Our project will also further the NSF goal of training new generations of scientists, providing scientific training for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students.  This includes the unique educational opportunity for undergraduates to participate in research cruises in Antarctica and the development of a novel summer graduate course on fjord ecosystems. Internet-based outreach activities will be enhanced and extended by the participation of a professional photographer who will produce magazine articles, websites, radio broadcasts, and other forms of public outreach on the fascinating Antarctic ecosystem.

FjordEco involves a 15-month field program to test mechanistic hypotheses concerning oceanographic and glaciological forcing, and phytoplankton and benthic community response in the Antarctic fjords. Those efforts will be followed by a coupled physical/biological modeling effort study to evaluate the drivers of biogeochemical cycles in the fjords and to explore their potential sensitivity to enhanced meltwater and sediment inputs. Fieldwork over two oceanographic cruises aboard the NSF ships the Laurence M. Gould and the Nathaniel B. Palmer in late 2015 and the spring of 2016 will utilize moorings, weather stations, and glacial, sea-ice and seafloor time-lapse cameras to obtain an integrated view of fjord ecosystem processes. The field team will also make multiple shipboard measurements and will use towed and autonomous underwater vehicles to intensively evaluate fjord ecosystem structure and function during spring/summer and autumn seasons. These integrated field and modeling studies are expected to elucidate fundamental properties of water column and sea bottom ecosystem structure and function in the fjords, and to identify key physical-chemical-glaciological forcing in these rapidly warming ecosystems.


Andvord Bay, a glaciomarine fjord located along the West Antarctic Peninsula, is the focus of this ]study and the location of two intensive oceanographic cruises 2015-2016.

Find out more about the Principle Investigators (PIs), researchers and students involved as well as follow exciting updates about the project with the cruise blog on this webpage or check out live updates via Twitter with #FjordEco.



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