These are alarming and profound forces that are changing the upper reaches the North Pacific and Arctic oceans. They are destroying the food chain that supports billions and one the most important fisheries on the planet.
Scientists have documented animal deaths of unprecedented size, duration, and scope in the waters of the Beaufort Chukchi and northern Bering Seas over the past five-years. The ecosystem is vital for resident seals and walruses, bears, and migratory gray whales as well as birds, sea lions, and many other animals.
According to researchers who study the ecosystem, long periods of record-breaking sea heat and loss of seaice have fundamentally changed it from the bottom up. Algae and zooplankton are being affected. Now, apex predators like killer whales are moving into areas that were once protected by ice to gain unrestricted access to riches.
Scientists describe the current situation as less of an ecosystem collapse but more of a brutal regime shift, an event in which many species will disappear and others will replace them.
Janet Duffy Anderson, a Seattle-based scientist who conducts annual surveys in the Bering Sea to determine the winners and losers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said that it is possible to think of it as winners and losers. Something will emerge and become more dominant, while something else will fall because it is unable to adapt to changing food webs.
The Times sent a team to Alaska to speak with scientists who were conducting field research in the Bering sea and high Arctic. This was to better understand these dramatic changes. They found that this vast, near-polar ecosystem is stable for thousands of years and resilient to short but dramatic temperature swings. This is an irreversible transition.
It’s almost like the gates to hell have been opened,” Lorenzo Ciannelli, an Oregon State University fisheries oceanographer, said. He was referring to an area of the Bering Sea once covered in ice that has mostly disappeared.
Federal investigators have reported unexplained deaths in a variety of animals since 2019. This includes gray whales, which migrate past California, as well as several Arctic seal species.They are also being examined Large die-offs (or wrecks), as avian scientists call them, are common in dozens of seabird species.You will also find shearwaters, black-legged kitstiwakes, and horned puffins.
They are also documenting the disappearance the cold pool, a region in the northern Bering Sea that has been protecting cold-water species such as Arctic cod, snow crab, and walleye pollock from subarctic species such as walleye cod and Pacific cod for thousands of years. Many Arctic species have disappeared almost entirely from the northern Bering in the last five years while warmer-dwelling fish populations have increased.
A federal survey in 2010 estimated that there were 319,000 metric tonnes of snow crab in northern Bering Sea. That number had fallen by more than 75% as of this year. The subarctic fish, the Pacific cod has seen a dramatic increase in its numbers, going from 29,124 metric tonnes in 2010 to 227.577 in 2021.
It is not clear if the warming has affected these super-cold water species or caused them to migrate further north or west, across U.S.-Russia border, from where American scientists cannot observe them. However, scientists have reported that animals are suffering in the more distant polar regions.
This brings us to the core challenge of studying this ecosystem. The region’s remoteness, freezing temperatures, and lack of sunlight have made it difficult to study for so long. The Arctic isn’t like other climates that can provide accurate population counts of many species. This makes it difficult to establish baseline data for many species, especially those of little commercial value.
This part is really frustrating, according to Peter Boveng who studies Arctic seals at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He said that he and his colleagues aren’t sure if the information they’re currently gathering is really baseline data or has been changed by years of warming.
Only recently did he and other scientists have the technology to conduct these types of counts using cameras rather than observers in planes or installing sound buoys across ice and water to capture movements of whales and seals.
Deborah Giles, a University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology killer whale researcher, said that we are only beginning to understand what’s happening up there. We couldn’t be there and see things the way a drone could.
The dramatic shifts Giles and Boveng are observing have ramifications far beyond the Arctic. The Bering sea is one of the most important fishing grounds on the planet. For example, the eastern Bering Sea supplies more than 40% annually of the U.S. fish and shellfish catchThis is a crucial food source to thousands of Russians, Indigenous Alaskans, and others who rely on seal, birds eggs and fish for protein.
Globally, cold water ecosystems support fisheries. All of the cod, all benthic and lobster species, Halibut. This is the main food source for the entire world, according NOAAs Duffy–Anderson.
The potential ripple effect could cause fisheries to shut down and make migrating animals hungry. These include gray whales as well as short-tailed shearwaters A bird that travels more the 9,000 miles annually from Australia and New Zealand in order to feed in the Arctic smorgasbord. home.
She said Alaska is a good indicator of what other systems can expect. It’s only the beginning.
Matthew Van Daele, a pilot on the southeast coast of Alaska’s Kodiak Island, was wearing a safety helmet tethered in a U.S. Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk. As he scanned the beaches below, he leaned out of the helicopter door to check for dead seals or whales.
The clouds were low so the copter sat close to the sandstone rock cliffs that rise up from this green island. This island receives approximately 80 inches of rainfall and 60 inches snowfall each year. While there were few dead animals spotted on this September afternoon. However, many furry brown Kodiak bears were seen running along the beaches and across open fields, trying to escape the chopper.
There is one! Van Daele, Sunaq Tribe’s natural resources director, yelled, “There’s one!” as he pointed out a rotting whale carcass at the beach.
The pilots circled the beach and deftly landed on a strip of sand. Be careful not to damage the eroding rock wall at the beach’s edge.
Joe Sekerak was a NOAA enforcement agent and jumped out after Van Daele. He held a rifle in case hungry Kodiak Bears approached the small team to challenge it in its attempt at examining the whale carcass.
Van Daele said that the whale had been dead for several weeks. Her body was in poor health and she had very little fat.
Since 2019, hundreds have died of gray whales along North America’s Pacific coast, many of which appear thin or underfed.
Researchers have not yet determined the cause of the death, but there are warning signs in the high Arctic feeding grounds.
Alexus Kwatchka, a commercial fishing guide who has been navigating Alaskan waters for over 30 year, said that they were used to changing around here. He said that some years are colder than others, and that sometimes all the fish seem to stay in one area for a few decades before moving on.
This fall has been extremely frigid in Alaska. Kotzebue, in northwest Alaska, reached minus 31 degrees on Nov. 28, the lowest recorded for that date. This follows years of record-setting warmth throughout the region.
Kwatchka said that what is new is the persistence of this change. He said it is not like it gets super hot for a few years, then returns to normal. He said that the changes are lasting and that he has seen things he’s never seen before, such as gray whales swimming along the beaches of Kodiak or swimming in groups.
He said that whales are usually scattered around the island. But I have seen them in a variety of ways, including podded up and gathered up. I also see them in places I don’t normally see them.
A gray whale was seen off Kodiak Island in Alaska. (KC Bierlich / Oregon State University)
In September, a young male gray whale was seen on a beach near Kodiak. It was acting as though it was trying to feed and scooped material from the sandy bottom. The baleen is a system used by many leviathans to separate food from water and sand.
Three weeks later, the same young man was found dead on the shore, not far from where it had been previously spotted.
Kwatchkas observations were validated by dozens of scientists. They describe these extreme periods in ocean heat and cooling as “stanzas”, which last longer than any other period in the past.
Duffy-Anderson said that this is a problem because the more stress you place on a system, it will suffer greater and deeper impacts, making it harder to bounce back.
Although it is possible for the current stanza to be temporary and that the ecosystem could reset itself, this is unlikely according to Rick Thoman (University of Alaska Fairbanks), a climate specialist in Alaska.
He said that atmospheric warming has made the oceans so hot that it is unlikely that the Chukchi Sea would ever be again covered in thick, multi-year ice. He also said that we will not see the Bering covered in spring ice for many years to come.
Thoman stated that despite Nome experiencing one of the coldest Novembers in 100-years of record keeping, King Salmon, a town of 300 people, recorded its lowest November temperatures. However, the trend towards warming is on the rise.
He imagined a 5-year-old child running up and over an ascending escalator. One might stand off the escalator and say, “Oh, it seems like the kid is going to the bottom.” As we all know, the escalator continues to climb.
He added that what we have seen in the Bering sea in recent years has been unprecedented.
Jackie Grebmeier (researcher at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science) has been visiting these waters every year since 1980, when they were both graduate students at University of Alaska. Their initial proposal focused on one question: What makes the Arctic-like waters of northern Bering sea so productive?
It was hard work. The ocean was so frozen that it was virtually impossible to access. Other researchers had to face the same problem.
Kathy Kuletz (a U.S. bird biologist), said that we couldn’t travel north into the Bering Strait area when we started out because of ice until about mid-June. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been studying Alaskan birds and the northern Bering Sea and high Arctic region since 2006, and has been researching them since 2006. It wasn’t until June that you were able to get into the Chukchi. This hasn’t been an issue… since about 2015, let’s say.
Because the frozen ocean is the base of rich ecosystems, researchers are focusing on ice. It not only keeps the oceans below it cool, but also provides the foundation for the entire food web.
The Arctic sea ice grew thicker near the North Pole over the years as the sun moved southward in autumn and the temperatures dropped at high latitudes. It reached its edges and froze into the Chukchi- and Beaufort-sea inlets, before winding its way south through Bering Strait to the northern Bering Sea. The northern Bering Sea was a large field of white ice by March. Its edges were marked by broken sheets, which had been pushed vertically by the whipping winds and churningcurrents below.
The last 50 years have seen the seasons’ ice diminish as the regions’ warm stanzas have increased their duration and intensities.
A Science publishes 2020 studyThe ice extent has decreased in the last 5500 years in a way that is unprecedented: In 2018, and 2019, it was 60% to 70% less than the historical average. Federal scientists called the changes in the Arctic region alarming and unavoidable in a report card released this week.
The sea was named after Vitus Jonassen, a Russian naval explorer and 18-century Danish cartographer. However, the icy body had two distinct ecosystems. One was subarctic while the other was more similar to the high Arctic. The subarctic zone’s fish, such as Pacific cod, were discouraged by the cold temperatures of the cold pool. They hover below 32 degrees. Other fish, such as Arctic cod and flatfish, have evolved to thrive in this environment. The cold pool acts as a protective barrier.
Now, the thermal force field has almost disappeared.
Lyle Britt is the director of the Resource Assessment and Conservation Engineering division at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. This annual survey is part of an effort by the U.S. to monitor the health of commercial fish stocks and their ecosystems. Since 1982, the federal government has conducted an eastern Bering Sea survey. The exception was 2020 when COVID grounded all personnel and boats. The federal survey of the northern Bering sea began in 2010 as a response to concerns about the loss or seasonal sea ice. It has been surveyed five times.
Britt and his mariner companions navigate the sea like they are tracing over a piece of graph paper year after year. There are 520 stations evenly distributed at intervals of 20 miles. They stop at 376 stations in the eastern Bering sea and 144 in northern Bering Sea to collect environmental data.
Data from a Bering-Sea mooring show that the average temperature throughout the water column is steadily rising over the last few years. In 2018, water temperatures were 9° above the historical average.
The scientists have observed the fish, too.
Consider the plight the Alaska pollock, also known by the name Alaska pollock, one of the most important fisheries in the region.
Adult walleye pollock are not fond of super-cold water, but juveniles have been known to prefer the interior of the pool. The young fish are protected from predators that hate cold and can eat the Arctic ecosystem’s rich, fatty food sources.
Duffy-Anderson stated that the cold pool is gone and there is no place for small fish to grow. Instead, adult fish can now move into these spaces.
So what happened to the Arctic fishes then? Are they moving north to escape the cold?
Britt says it’s not easy. The northern Bering sea is very shallow. If there isn’t enough ice to cover it, it heats up quickly and can surpass temperatures found in the subarctic south Bering Sea.
He said that we don’t fully understand why fish move in the patterns and directions they do. However, some fish are gone from certain places, especially those that once housed cold-loving fish like Arctic cod and capelin.
In an Arctic system that is healthy, thousands of bottom-dwelling species of bottom fish, crabs, clams, and shrimp-like critters eat the lipid rich algae that falls from the sea floor to the ice. Duffy-Anderson said that the algae is taken up by the water column in warm-water systems.
The healthy system is very energy-efficient. It has sediment-dwelling insects and bottom fish that feed on the rain of alga, and then birds, large-bodied mammals like whales and walruses, scooping them up.
One thing that worries me is that the whole food web dynamic can’t be trusted, she said. Warmer water and animals are more likely to infiltrate the system. As a result, the food chain becomes less efficient at transferring energy. This is what we are starting to see.
Some Arctic mammals also require ice as a habitat. In 2018, several types of ice seals, including spotted, ringed and bearded, began appearing thin or dead in the Chukchi, Bering and Chukchi seas. This led to a federal investigation. These Arctic-dwelling species depend on sea ice for their pups, nursing and molting. They spend too much energy in cold water and more time without it. According to the Alaska Fisheries Science Centers Boveng, young seals are especially vulnerable. Without ice, their chances of survival drop dramatically.
Giles, University of Washington orca researcher, said that there have been reports of killer whales, also known as orcas, showing up in areas where they have never been seen before. They are feeding on bowheads, belugas, and narwhals.
She said that they are making channels and openings in the ice and preying on animals who have never seen killer whales before.
Global climate scientists have warned for years that humans and wildlife will be more susceptible to infectious diseases as the planet heats. This could explain the huge bird die-off in the Bering Sea. Experts estimate that at least tens to thousands of birds have perished there since 2013.
Avian cholera was the cause. This is a new disease that is rarely found in high latitudes. It also affects seabirds such a thick-billed murres (auklets), common eiders (northern fulmars) and gulls.
Robb Kaler, a U.S. wildlife biologist, stated that toxic algae linked to warmer waters was also detected in some dead birds and some healthy birds in the Bering Sea. Fish and Wildlife Service and could have caused the death of a St. Lawrence Island resident.
Kuletz, U.S. Kuletz, a Fish and Wildlife biologist who has been watching birds in Alaska since late 1970s said that she’s never seen such large-scale changes in recent years. She said that while the 2013 dead birds didn’t show signs of being emaciated in 2013, hundreds to thousands of them began to die on beaches showing clear signs of starvation in 2017.
She said that there have always been small peaks of death that would last for a year, but then everything would return to normal. These animals are resilient. They can give up breeding if they don’t have enough nutrition.
Not all bird species suffer. Albatross, who are surface feeders are booming, underscoring Kuletz’s idea that there could both winners and losers in this changing region. Albatross do not nest in Alaska. They only visit Alaska in summer to feed and are not tied to nests or eggs while searching for food.
It is difficult for scientists to see how a system in balance could suddenly go out of control so quickly, even if some species adapt and thrive while others struggle.
Thoman, University of Alaska climate specialist, said that it is actually very emotional. He recalled his elementary school days when he had read Jack London’s To Build a Fire and other Arctic stories.
Is this the same environment that he described and the one that I saw when I was looking through National Geographics in 1970s? This environment is no longer present.