Last year's record loss of Arctic sea ice is already causing big changes for plants and animals that scientists are just starting to understand, according to newly published research.

"It takes only one season to change how a deep-sea system functions," said Antje Boetius, who was the head scientist aboard a German research vessel that sailed through the High Arctic last summer.

That voyage of the Polarstern, owned by Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute, couldn't have come at a more interesting time.

In 2012, scientists measured Arctic sea ice at its lowest level in 33 years of satellite records. Where the Polarstern originally planned to work, "there was not even an ice cube for us," said Boetius.

The Polarstern had to travel more than 400 kilometres farther north to find enough ice to begin its planned research on algae called Melosira arctica that normally grow under the ice in thick, ropy strands up to five metres long. Few animals eat Melosira, but many live in it and Boetius compares it to a kind of coral reef.

The Polarstern scientists wanted to find out if Melosira was benefiting from thinner ice that allows more light to pass through. They also wanted to check anecdotal reports that suggested Melosira mats were disappearing.

Researchers found both assertions were correct, but not in the way they expected.

"We were surprised that we saw (Melosira mats) everywhere, but they had fallen to the deep sea," said Boetius.

"We found their remnants. It looked like someone had pulled out hair. Something had happened to them."

The scientists checked the sea floor as far down as 4.4 kilometres and that's where they found the algae.

Boetius suggests Melosira benefits from spring sunshine filtering through the thinner ice. Later in the season, when the sea gets too warm and too diluted by meltwater, the algae simply drop off.

But in the energy-poor Arctic ocean, the transfer of that much organic material from one level to another is having profound consequences.

In just one season, the numbers of sea cucumbers and brittle stars on the sea floor have exploded. Bacteria have bloomed to the point where they have used all the available oxygen in the water in some areas of the ocean bottom.

"We saw the first anoxic spots forming in the deep sea," Boetius said. "That can change life dramatically."

As for what the loss of Melosira mats means for surface sea life, Boetius concedes they just doesn't know.

She said the lack of any other organisms feeding on the dead Melosira, as well as the presence of plenty of oxygen in sea-floor sediments, convinces her that what the Polarstern observed is a very recent development.

She maintained that the Polarstern research, published Thursday in the prestigious journal Science, constitutes a lesson for those who still imagine the Arctic as an unchanging expanse of ice, snow and water.

"Will this be the future Arctic that we have just acquired the first evidence of? This we cannot answer.

"We are really at the point where we look and see changes that we cannot even model, or that we really cannot explain."

The radical changes in the High Arctic seas after just one season are a warning to those planning to exploit the area's resources, or use it as a shipping corridor, Boetius said.

"We are thinking of uses without even documenting how the Arctic functions."

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • This April 21, 2010 photo shows a hawksbill sea turtle as it cruises over a reef just off the shore of Curacao. From mesmerizingly decorative buildings to lush coral reefs beneath sparkling turquoise waters, this Dutch Caribbean island has more than enough sights on land and under the sea to keep visitors restfully busy for a week. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

  • This April 9, 2012 photo provided by NOAA shows french grunts swimming around sponges and coral off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, taken as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sea-floor habitat research project aboard NOAA's Nancy Foster ship. In a three-week project that wraps up Saturday April 21, scientists with the NOAA are mapping an area to help officials determine what sort of rules are needed to protect the recently created Northeast Great Reserve, Puerto Rico's first officially designated marine corridor. (AP Photo/NOAA)

  • Coral

    FILE - In this undated file photo released by Conservation International, a healthy coral reef is seen off the Caribbean island of Bonaire. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says the Caribbean's reefs are in sharp decline, with live coral coverage down to an average of just 8 percent, in a report released Sept. 7, 2012. That's down from 50 percent in the 1970s. (AP Photo/Andy Bruckner, NOAA Fisheries, File)

  • This image provided by NOAA shows a close look one of the many interesting images collected by the Little Hercules ROV during the INDEX 2010 Exploration of the Sangihe Talaud Region off Indonesia in July. Scientists using cutting-edge technology to explore waters off Indonesia were wowed by colorful and diverse images of marine life on the ocean floor _ including plate-sized sea spiders and flower-like sponges that appear to be carnivorous. They predicted Thursday Aug. 26, 2010 that as many as 40 new plant and animal species may have been discovered during the three-week expedition that ended Aug. 14. (AP Photo/NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

  • FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2006 file photo provided by Centre of Marine Studies, The University of Queensland, fish swim amongst bleached coral near the Keppel Islands in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Ocean acidification has emerged as one of the biggest threats to coral reefs across the world, acting as the "osteoporosis of the sea" and threatening everything from food security to tourism to livelihoods, the head of a U.S. scientific agency said Monday, July 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Centre for Marine Studies, The University of Queensland, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, File)

  • FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2009 file photo, orange colored ringed rice coral, or montipora patula, is seen in waters off Waimanalo, Hawaii. A study by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Americans value coral reefs around the main Hawaiian Islands at the amount of $33.57 billion. Researchers arrived at the figure by surveying 3,200 Americans across the nation and asking them how much of their income taxes they would want devoted to hypothetical initiatives to improve the health of Hawaii's coral reefs. (AP Photo/Keoki Stender, file)

  • TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PIERRE PRATABUY

    TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PIERRE PRATABUY A scientist diver discovers the flora and fauna located on artificial reefs, by 30 meters deep (98.42 ft) on July 8, 2012 off shore of southern city of Marseille. The immersion in 2008 of nearly 30,000m3 (1.059.439 ft3) of artificial reefs in the bay of Marseilles rose to a return of the species. The presence of such some 200 hectars (494 acres) of artificial habitat for flora and fauna, located between the islands of Friuli and the Prado Bay, is 'the largest artificial reef made ??up in Europe,' said Didier Reault, French right wing party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) City delegate to boating, beaches and national park of the Calanques. A Big Blue in a 'good ecological status' in 2020 ? This is the aim of the Water Agency and of the Interregional Sea Directorates (DIRM), a French Minister of Ecology Department, providing a financing project of 600 million euros (737 millions dollars) over six years including 6 millions (7.37 millions dollars) to raise awareness. AFP PHOTO / BORIS HORVAT (Photo credit should read BORIS HORVAT/AFP/GettyImages)

  • TO GO WITH AFP STORY INDONESIA-TOURISM-P

    TO GO WITH AFP STORY INDONESIA-TOURISM-PAPUA-MINES, FEATURE BY LOIC VENNIN In this photograph taken on October 21, 2011 a diver explores the coral reef in the waters of Raja Ampat's Kri Island located in eastern Indonesia's Papua region. Called the last paradise on earth, Raja Ampat acrhipelago was nominated as World Heritage Site of UNESCO with its largely pristine environment considered as one of the most important marine biodiversity in the world. AFP PHOTO / ROMEO GACAD (Photo credit should read ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Two-year-old Green Sea Turtle "Sea Biscu

    Two-year-old Green Sea Turtle 'Sea Biscuit' with her front left flipper missing, swims in a tropical reef aquarium at Oceanworld Manly, north of Sydney on May 20, 2011. Sea Biscuit who was rescued by Oceanworld staff in 2009 and was so badly injured when washed ashore that she lost her front left flipper, has been handraised by senior aquarist Marina Tsamoulos and has learnt to dive and swim with her remaining three flippers. World Turtle Day will be celebrated on May 23. AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Australian Institute of Marine Science shows white coral syndrome in Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Ocean acidification has emerged as one of the biggest threats to coral reefs across the world, acting as the "osteoporosis of the sea" and threatening everything from food security to tourism to livelihoods, the head of a U.S. scientific agency said Monday, July 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Australian Institute of Marine Science, File)

  • FILE - In this Thursday, April 30, 2009 file photo, fish swim near coral reefs in the waters in the waters of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia. Coral gardens off the Komodo Islands were just a few months ago teeming with clouds of brightly colored reef fish, octopi with fluorescent banded eyes and black-and-blue striped sea snakes. Today, after being pounded by increasingly brazen blast fisherman, several diving sites within the U.N. World Heritage Site have been transformed into desolate grey moonscapes. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

  • FILE - In this Thursday, April 30, 2009 file photo, coral reefs are seen in the waters of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia. Coral gardens that were among Asia's most spectacular, teeming with colorful sea life just a few months ago, have been transformed into desolate gray moonscapes by fishermen who use explosives or cyanide to kill or stun their prey.(AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

  • A photo taken by a camera submerged into

    A photo taken by a camera submerged into a pond shows small fish seen swimming under thin ice in St. Petersburg park on February 13, 2011. PHOTO/ KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Environmental Groups Challenge Navy's Use Of Sonar In West Coast Training Exercises

    ABOARD THE MANUTEA, CA - JANUARY 30: Bottlenose dolphins swim ahead of the bow of a boat off the southern California coast on January 30, 2012 near Dana Point, California. A coalition that includes Native American tribes, Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council is on the National Marine Fisheries Service for more protection for dolphins, whales, and other migrating marine animals from the use of sonar in training by the US Navy on the West Coast. Environmental groups argue that mid-frequency sonar alters the behavior of sound-sensitive marine life and, in some cases, causes fatal results. Some whales are believed to communicate across hundreds of miles of ocean through sound. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)