Kelp forest community structure and demography in Kongsfjorden (Svalbard) across 25 years of Arctic warming

[Published 25 June 2024]

Scientific Publications

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The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is a hotspot of global warming and many fjords experience a continuous increase in seawater temperature and glacial melt while sea-ice cover declines. In 1996/1998, 2012–2014, and 2021 macroalgal biomass and species diversity were quantified at the study site Hansneset, Kongsfjorden (W-Spitsbergen) in order to identify potential changes over time. In 2021, we repeated the earlier studies by stratified random sampling (1 × 1 m2, n = 3) along a sublittoral depth transect (0, 2.5, 5, 10, and 15 m) and investigated the lower depth limits of dominant brown algae between 3 and 19 m. The maximum fresh weight (FW) of all seaweeds was 11.5 kg m-2 at 2.5 m and to 99.9% constituted of kelp. Although biomass distribution along the depth transect in 2021 was not significantly different compared to 2012/2013, the digitate kelp community (Laminaria digitata/Hedophyllum nigripes) had transformed into an Alaria esculenta-dominated kelp forest. Consequently, a pronounced shift in kelp forest structure occurred over time as we demonstrate that biomass allocation to thallus parts is kelp species-specific. Over the past decade, kelp demography changed and in 2021 a balanced age structure of kelps (juveniles plus many older kelp individuals) was only apparent at 2.5 m. In addition, the abundances and lower depth limits of all dominant brown algae declined noticeably over the last 25 years while the red algal flora abundance remained unchanged at depth. We propose that the major factor driving the observed changes in the macroalgal community are alterations in underwater light climate, as in situ data showed increasing turbidity and decreasing irradiance since 2012 and 2017, respectively. As a consequence, the interplay between kelp forest retreat to lower depth levels caused by coastal darkening and potential macroalgal biomass gain with increasing temperatures will possibly intensify in the future with unforeseen consequences for melting Arctic coasts and fjord ecosystem services.

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