Wegner receives prestigious graduate award for Arctic research

Doctoral candidate Chelsea Wegner holds a specimen while on an Arctic research cruise.

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science doctoral candidate Chelsea Wegner was awarded a prestigious $25,000 graduate student research award from the North Pacific Research Board, according to a release from the center. One of only six awarded nationally, the award will allow her to continue and expand her study of the potential impact of the loss of ice algae on the Pacific Arctic food web.

The North Pacific Research Board provides funding and supports research that relates to pressing fishery management issues and important ecosystem needs in the north Pacific, including the Arctic. It offers competitive research awards to master’s and doctoral level students.

A graduate student at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, Wegner’s proposal selected for funding was “Tracking sea ice algae contributions to the Pacific Arctic food web using Highly Branched Isoprenoid biomarkers.” She seeks to quantify the importance of ice algae to the bottom-dwelling prey of the Pacific Walrus, and its transferal up to the walrus, as sea ice conditions change across the Bering and Chukchi seas.

“Does the loss of ice algae impact the benthic community, which is ultimately the food source for the walrus?” she said in the release.

Early algae blooms that form on the underside of sea ice fall to the sea floor in the spring and serve as nutritious early season sustenance for creatures on the sea floor. As the ice retreats in summer, phytoplankton blooms in open water take their place. The clams and other creatures feed on this fallen feast, and the Pacific walrus feeds on the clams.

Wegner is using unique biomarkers produced by diatoms to measure the relative proportions of ice algae versus phytoplankton found in open water blooms to understand the impact declining sea ice may have on the Arctic ecosystem.

“The maximum extent of sea ice in the winter continues to decline and is retreating earlier every spring,” Wegner said. “We don’t fully understand how this will impact the organisms adapted to live with and on the ice. Sea ice is an important part of the Arctic habitat, serving as a substrate for this algal growth and a platform for marine mammals like the walrus.”

She will examine these lipid biomarkers in benthic invertebrates and samples from the liver of walruses (harvested by Iñupiaq subsistence hunters for food) to understand what walruses are eating. Lipids are stored there and can tell us something about what they have eaten in the past weeks and months.

“I want to see how the samples collected from different times and locations compare with what we know was happening with sea ice and walrus migrations that year,” she said. Analysis of the different lipids may better demonstrate the importance of ice algae to their diet in the different regions.

Wegner has two research cruises in the Arctic scheduled this summer and plans to meet with indigenous communities in Alaska to share research perspective on the loss of sea ice, hunting, and observations about walrus population.

“It’s important to respect their traditional local knowledge and share with them what I’m finding out,” she said.