Kick-off for a new polar research project

YESSS to investigate warming in the Arctic during the dark season

8 February 2024


The new research project YESSS, short for Year-round EcoSystem Study on Svalbard, is focussing on how Arctic warming is changing over the seasons in Svalbard. The team of around 30 scientists observes the life cycles, foraging, and overwintering strategies of selected key species all year round and conducts experiments at the AWIPEV station on Svalbard. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the project, which is coordinated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, with EUR 2.7 million until the end of 2026. Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is one of the partners of the YESSS project.

The Arctic is warming more quickly than any other place on Earth. The melting glaciers and dwindling sea ice there have become an iconic image of climate change. But also the entire seasonal development of plants and animals is changing, possibly with serious ecological consequences. Researchers from seven universities and research institutions, among them Professor Bernhard Lieb of the JGU Institute of Molecular Physiology (IMP), now met at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven for the kick-off meeting for the 40-month polar research project YESSS. Under the leadership of the AWI, the researchers want to investigate the seasonal aspects of warming in the Arctic. Until now, little is known about this because our understanding of such ecological processes has mainly been based on studies carried out in spring and summer. This is now set to change: YESSS is about year-round research being conducted on the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard . As part of Germany's polar strategy, the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education (BMBF) is funding the project with around EUR 2.7

When it comes to climate change, the Arctic is considered a hotspot, a kind of early warning system for impending global changes. This is due to the fact that the effects of climate change are intensified under the extreme conditions in the Arctic Ocean region. Ocean temperature has risen twice as fast as in other regions of the world. This matters because ocean warming is a stress factor for many organisms: Higher temperatures accelerate processes in the body and thus lead to greater consumption of resources.

What consequences does this have for phenology in the Arctic?

"So far, there have been hardly any studies on these developments in the long and dark Arctic winter and also not in the transitional periods in spring and autumn, which are only a few days long. We now want to gain new insights with weekly measurements throughout the year," said YESSS project leader Dr. Clara Hoppe. The AWI biologist has been involved in several research expeditions to Svalbard since 2014 and also in the year-round MOSAiC expedition in 2019/2020 in the Central Arctic. Her special field of research is phytoplankton, microscopically small single-celled organisms that bind the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and produce oxygen from water. Phytoplankton is the basis of the food web, which means that changes in phytoplankton have an impact on the entire ecosystem. "We want to investigate how these organisms react to the stressor of increased water temperature during the dark months," emphasized Dr. Clara Hoppe.

Such season-specific experiments on temperature sensitivity will also be carried out for other key groups in the food web, for macroalgae such as seaweed, molluscs such as mussels, echinoderms such as sea urchins, and fish such as cod. The higher water temperatures are, for example, already attracting fish species that did not previously exist in the Arctic. Whether native species will be sufficiently resistant is largely unknown. Based on the data obtained on resilience to higher temperatures and successful overwintering strategies, the scientists will develop an ecosystem model. It is intended to identify potential "winners" and "losers" of climate change as well as temperature tipping points at different times of the year. "When linked together, these different research findings can help to assess the ecological consequences of climate change in the Arctic," said Dr. Clara Hoppe. The YESSS project aims to develop strategic guidelines for the sustainable socio-ecological management of similar Arctic coastal ecosystems and make them available to various interest groups such as indigenous and local communities or countries bordering the Arctic Ocean as well as

The development of these governance concepts and the entire communication of the research project, including to the general public, are summarized in a separate work package of YESSS. Experts from the Ecologic Institute and the NGO e.V. will support the scientists. This special approach also convinced the BMBF when selecting the project.

Following a preparatory phase since September 2023 and the kick-off meeting in Bremerhaven this week, the actual research work in the Kongsfjord on Svalbard is scheduled to begin in summer 2024. Only around 30 people live in Ny-Ålesund, where the AWIPEV research station is located, in winter. For one year, four doctoral students will also work there for the YESSS research project, in groups of two, alternating every six weeks. They will take weekly samples on site and provide measurement results for the project in various experiments.
They will be prepared for their new job far north of the Arctic Circle in various training sessions at the AWI and GEOMAR in Kiel, including protection in the event of encounters with polar bears, boat based sampling at night, and a two-day media training program. The team will regularly report on their extraordinary work in climate research on social media in an attempt to appeal to a young audience. At the end of 2026, the project results will be available and presented at the largest annual Arctic conference, the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, among other events.