Glacial runoff strongly influences food webs in Gulf of Alaska fjords
Friday, 18 December 2015: 17:15
2004 (Moscone West)
Melting glaciers contribute large volumes of freshwater to the Gulf of Alaska coast. Rates of glacier volume loss have increased markedly in recent decades, raising concern about the eventual loss of glaciers as a source of freshwater in coastal waters. To better understand the influence of glacier melt water on fjord ecosystems, we sampled oceanography, nutrients, zooplankton, forage fish, and seabirds within four fjords in the coastal Gulf of Alaska. We used generalized additive models and geostatistics to identify the range of influence of glacier runoff in fjords of varying estuarine and topographic complexity. We also modeled the responses of chlorophyll a concentration, copepod biomass, fish and seabird abundance to physical, nutrient and biotic predictor variables. Physical and nutrient signatures of glacial runoff extended 10-20 km into coastal fjords. Glacially modified physical gradients and among-fjord differences explained 66% of the variation in phytoplankton abundance, which drives ecosystem structure at higher trophic levels. Copepod, euphausiid, fish and seabird distribution and abundance were also related to environmental gradients that could be traced to glacial freshwater input. Seabird density was predicted by prey availability and silica concentrations, which may indicate upwelling areas where this nutrient is in excess. Similarities in ecosystem structure among fjords were due to influx of cold, fresh, sediment and nutrient laden water, while differences were due to fjord topography and the relative importance of estuarine vs. ocean influences. We anticipate continued changes in the volume and magnitude of glacial runoff will affect coastal marine food webs in the future.