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Keywords:

  • Arctic;
  • climate change;
  • depth limit;
  • kelp;
  • production;
  • sea ice cover

Abstract

We studied the depth distribution and production of kelp along the Greenland coast spanning Arctic to sub-Arctic conditions from 78 ºN to 64 ºN. This covers a wide range of sea ice conditions and water temperatures, with those presently realized in the south likely to move northwards in a warmer future. Kelp forests occurred along the entire latitudinal range, and their depth extension and production increased southwards presumably in response to longer annual ice-free periods and higher water temperature. The depth limit of 10% kelp cover was 9–14 m at the northernmost sites (77–78 ºN) with only 94–133 ice-free days per year, but extended to depths of 21–33 m further south (73 ºN–64 ºN) where >160 days per year were ice-free, and annual production of Saccharina longicruris and S. latissima, measured as the size of the annual blade, ranged up to sevenfold among sites. The duration of the open-water period, which integrates light and temperature conditions on an annual basis, was the best predictor (relative to summer water temperature) of kelp production along the latitude gradient, explaining up to 92% of the variation in depth extension and 80% of the variation in kelp production. In a decadal time series from a high Arctic site (74 ºN), inter-annual variation in sea ice cover also explained a major part (up to 47%) of the variation in kelp production. Both spatial and temporal data sets thereby support the prediction that northern kelps will play a larger role in the coastal marine ecosystem in a warmer future as the length of the open-water period increases. As kelps increase carbon-flow and habitat diversity, an expansion of kelp forests may exert cascading effects on the coastal Arctic ecosystem.