pH tipping point in Svalbard (pHinS)

The overarching aim of this work is to estimate how pH and the marine carbonate system will change in Kongsfjorden in coming decades, by the combination of a simple hydrological box model with new measurements of the carbonate system both in the fjord and in glacial meltwater

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Project type

  • field work
  • modelling


  • oceanography

Project Keywords

  • terrestrial hydrosphere / surface water / surface water chemistry
  • oceans / coastal processes / fjords
  • oceans / ocean chemistry / ph
  • oceans / ocean chemistry / inorganic carbon
  • oceans / ocean chemistry / biogeochemical cycles

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Relative to seawater, unexpectedly high pH values can be found in Kongsfjorden, up to 8.6 in surface water in summer 2015. As the fjord is open, fjord circulation generally removes meltwater quickly, the mean pH of freshwater inputs from both land and marine terminating glaciers discharging into the fjord must be very alkaline in order to maintain such a high pH. Glacial meltwater feeding into the fjord from a large land terminating glacier is known to have high pH (up to 10), but it is not clear whether this is representative of inputs from groundwater or sub-glacial drainage. As increasing annual air temperatures and glacial retreat are well established phenomena across much of the Arctic, we expect that pH in the fjords around Spitsbergen may be subject to pronounced pH changes in the near future due to changing meltwater fluxes. Longer and warmer meltwater seasons may increase glacial meltwater fluxes around Svalbard in the near (decades) future, but these fluxes must eventually be subject to a decline due to the negative mass balance of the Svalbard Ice Sheets. A short-term increase in the input of alkaline freshwater into adjacent fjords will, we hypothesize, be followed by a longer-term decline. Given the ongoing increase in atmospheric pCO2 due to anthropogenic emissions, this will, presumably, be accompanied by a sharp decrease in fjord seawater pH, determining a theoretical pH tipping point. This rapid pH decline has the potential to be among the fastest natural changes ever reported for a natural body of oxygenated seawater. Glaciers play also a key role in driving the local circulation of fjords. Subglacial meltwater discharge typically causes localized upwelling close to marine terminating glacial fronts. This brings deep seawater to the surface and drives primary production, which in turn stimulates CO2 drawdown. Determining the effect of changing glacial meltwater fluxes and glacial retreat on coastal pH values is therefore challenging as several physical and biological features of glacial systems act concurrently in affecting pH values in adjacent waters. During the planned fieldwork, samples will be collected to measure the composition (DIC, alkalinity, pH, DOC, nutrients) of the different freshwater inputs into the fjord and in coastal seawater, together with the acquisition of the main physical parameters. Several stations will be sampled along a transect from the glacial fronts towards the fjord mouth, with a high vertical resolution to well characterize the upper, stratified, water column, while the inner part of the fjord, the coastal area and the main inland sites will be sampled several times, with high temporal frequency.

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