Impact of recent climate change on phytoplankton composition in the Arctic Ocean

  • Supervisors: Dr Fabienne Marret-Davies, University of Liverpool
    Prof Claire Mahaffey, University of Liverpool

  • External Supervisors: Dr Bart van Dongen, University of Manchester

  • Contact:

    Dr Fabienne Marret-Davies, University of Liverpool,

  • CASE Partner:

Application deadline: 10 January 2020


The Arctic Ocean is undergoing rapid environmental change. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. The areal extent of sea ice has declined by 9% per decade since 1978 (Comiso 2012). Expansion of ice free regions has increased Arctic primary productivity by 30% since 1998 (Arrigo and van Dijken 2015). These environmental changes have led to regional changes in phytoplankton community size structure and diversity, with large phytoplankton being replaced by smaller cells (e.g. Mousing et al., 2017). Increased dominance of phytoplankton such as dinoflagellates has implications for proliferation of toxic phytoplankton blooms (e.g., Richlen et al., 2016). While these changes have been detected recently in the upper water column (e.g., Crawford et al., 2018), the variability in phytoplankton biomass, diversity and emergence of species succession in the recent past is unknown.

This project will use micro-paleontological and biogeochemical techniques to understand the variation in the plankton community over the past 200 years and the environmental drivers for this change.

Project Summary:

Using sediment cores from the Barents Sea and Fram Strait in the Arctic Ocean recently collected as part of the NERC Changing Arctic Ocean programme (, this project will focus on using microfossils (dinoflagellate cysts), to understand changes in the plankton community and reconstruct the Arctic environment. Dinoflagellates are a major contributor to primary production in the ocean but are also responsible for red ties and harmful algal blooms, which can be a threat to food webs. The distribution of dinocyst species is now very well known in the Northern Hemisphere due to decades of collaborative studies (e.g., de Vernal et al., 2013; Marret et al., 2019). Furthermore, these palaeoceanographical proxies can be used to quantitatively reconstruct annual and seasonal sea-surface conditions (temperature, salinity, sea-ice cover duration and primary productivity) for recent geological time periods (late Quaternary) in the Arctic region (e.g., de Vernal et al., 2013).

The objectives of this project are to (a) analyze dinoflagellate cyst content in sediment cores collected in contrasting regions of the Arctic Ocean including the marginal ice zone, region influenced by the Atlantic inflow and deep Arctic ocean (b) use the modern analogue technique (Guiot and de Vernal, 2007) to quantitatively reconstruct sea-surface parameters using a modern database of ~1900 sites from the Northern Hemisphere and (c) use organic geochemical biomarkers (e.g. dinosterols) and dating techniques to reconstruct the composition and sedimentation rates of sediment cores (e.g. (Kohlbach et al., 2016).


Comiso, J.C., 2012: Large Decadal Decline of the Arctic Multiyear Ice Cover. J. Climate, 25, 1176–1193. 

de Vernal A, Rochon A, Fréchette B, et al. (2013) Reconstructing past sea ice cover of the Northern Hemisphere from dinocyst assemblages: status of the approach. Quaternary Science Reviews 79: 122-134. 

Kohlbach D, Graeve M, A. Lange B, et al. (2016) The importance of ice algae-produced carbon in the central Arctic Ocean ecosystem: Food web relationships revealed by lipid and stable isotope analyses. Limnology and Oceanography 61: 2027-2044.

Marret, F., Bradley, L., de Vernal, A., Hardy, W., Kim, S.-Y., Mudie, P., Penaud, A., Pospelova, V., Price, A.M., Radi, T., Rochon, A. (2019). From bi-polar to regional distribution of modern dinoflagellate cysts, an overview of their biogeography. Marine Micropaleontology, online. 

Mousing EA, Ribeiro S, Chisholm C, et al. (2017) Size differences of Arctic marine protists between two climate periods—using the paleoecological record to assess the importance of within-species trait variation. Ecology and Evolution 7: 3-13. 

Richlen ML, Zielinski O, Holinde L, et al. (2016) Distribution of Alexandrium fundyense (Dinophyceae) cysts in Greenland and Iceland, with an emphasis on viability and growth in the Arctic. Marine Ecology Progress Series 547: 33-46.

Apply Now