The Skimmer is a new MEAM feature where we review the latest news and research on a particular topic. News about the Arctic Ocean region[1] is coming fast and furious these days, and it can be difficult to see how all the individual pieces fit together. In this Skimmer, MEAM pulls together news and research related to Arctic marine ecosystems from the past year. Our takeaway: The situation is grim for the Arctic as we knew it, and this has global repercussions.

How is the Arctic climate changing? Let us count the ways

  • The average surface air temperature in the high Arctic last year was the second warmest since 1900. Only 2016 was warmer.
  • There was a lot less sea ice last winter than there used to be. The winter maximum sea ice recorded in March 2017 was the lowest on record since 1979.
  • The decrease in summer sea ice was even more dramatic. The minimum sea ice extent in September 2017 was 25% lower than the 1981-2010 average sea ice extent and was the second lowest on record (tied with 2007).
  • Sea surface temperatures in the Barents and Chukchi seas were much warmer than average. In August 2017, they were 4°C warmer than average, contributing to a delay in autumn freezing.
  • Primary production has increased in the Barents and Eurasian Arctic seas because sea ice is breaking up earlier in the year, allowing sunlight to reach the upper layers of the ocean and stimulate plankton blooms.
  • Dark surfaces absorb more heat (the albedo effect), and the change from white ice and snow to blue water and green land is increasing regional and global temperatures. One study estimates that that the albedo effect is equivalent to 25% of the global temperature increase from rising CO2 levels over the past 30 years. So, yes, this is a big deal.
  • Warmer air holds more moisture, so the now-warmer Arctic air holds more water vapor than it used to. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, leading to further temperature increases.
  • Meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet runs down holes in the ice sheet called moulins. This lubricates the ice sheet bed below and causes outlet glaciers at the edge of the ice sheet to advance more quickly and calve more icebergs into the ocean.
  • As terrestrial regions in the Arctic get warmer, runoff from snowmelt and other streams flow through warmer land, leading to warmer water flowing into the Arctic Ocean from northward-flowing rivers in Siberia and Canada.
  • Why does all this matter so much to the rest of the world? Because one of the features of current global climates is the circulation of air and ocean currents between the cold Arctic and warmer parts of the Northern Hemisphere. This circulation is driven by the temperature difference between the areas. With a warming Arctic and a smaller temperature gradient, this circulation is diminished. Mid-latitude winds (“jet streams”) weaken and form wavier patterns, slowing down the passage of weather systems. This leads to extreme weather stagnating over places for long periods such that warm weather becomes prolonged heat waves, dry weather becomes droughts (creating conditions ripe for wildfires), and rainfall events cause flooding. (Read more about all this here, here, and here.
  • If you need a bit of a mental break after reading about all of this deeply unsettling information, it’s interesting to think about some of the rather unorthodox and VERY unproven measures that some geoengineers are proposing to deal with what’s going on in the Arctic – proposals include putting glaciers on crutches to prevent their sliding into the ocean, thickening sea ice with wind-powered pumps, and spreading reflective material on polar ice to reduce melting rates.

What does all this mean for marine conservation and management?

  • As Arctic sea ice continues to hit record lows during both the summer and winter, areas of the Arctic Ocean are becoming accessible to ships (or year-long transit) for the first time in 1,500 years. This means the potential for an influx of fishers, shippers, tourists, explorers, scientists, prospectors, drillers, navies, etc. into the area. Conservation and management just got a lot more complicated…

But, brace yourselves, a bunch of competing nations actually did something conservation-minded

  • In a shocking (given the current state of geopolitical affairs) act of proactive and precautionary management, five nations with Arctic borders – Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the US – and other nations with industrialized fishing fleets – China, the European Union, Iceland, Japan, and South Korea – have agreed to sign a legally binding treaty to prevent commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean for at least the next 16 years.
  • After the initial 16-year term, the treaty will be automatically extended every five years unless a country objects or a science-based fisheries management plan is put in place.
  • The agreement will establish a joint scientific research and monitoring program to improve understanding of the area and determine what fish stocks could be harvested on a sustainable basis. This is a good step because we know virtually nothing about harvestable fish in the central Arctic Ocean. Approximately 250 fish species are known to exist in Arctic waters, but very little is known about population sizes, life cycles, habitats, interactions, etc. What we do know, however, is that organisms that live in cold waters are generally slower growing and longer lived and reproduce relatively infrequently. All of these factors make determining sustainable fishing yields pretty hard. So while sixteen years seems like a relatively long time now, it will not seem that way to fisheries scientists who will be starting from scratch in terms of baseline knowledge.
  • This international agreement is a good example of “Arctic exceptionalism,” the historic willingness of Russia and the United States to set aside other geopolitical differences for their common interests in the far north. A new blog describes what’s next for this agreement, including formal ratification.

So what’s going on with Arctic marine ecosystems? How are they changing?

  • Loss of sea ice habitat
  • Shifts in species ranges both within the Arctic and from sub-Arctic regions into the Arctic, and
  • Increases in contagious diseases such as avian cholera.
  • In thinking about all these various factors, the importance of the loss of sea ice to Arctic ecosystems really can’t be overstated. The loss of sea ice is having a massive influence on the climate, oceanography, primary productivity, and all other trophic levels in the Arctic.
  • Furthermore, as sea ice declines, the trophic structures that depends on it are changing. The algae that grow around and under sea ice feed zooplankton that in turn feed fish that in turn feed seals that in turn feed polar bears. A new study demonstrates this link between sea ice algae and polar bear diets and suggests that declines in sea ice (and sea ice algae) may make it impossible for top predators to get the calories they need to survive.
  • The loss of sea ice is a double whammy for upper trophic level species like seabirds and marine mammals, which use it for all sorts of activities such as feeding, resting, mating, and raising babies. For instance, harp seals in the Barents Sea are getting thinner because they have to travel farther to the ice edge to feed. The early sea ice retreat is reducing breeding and pup rearing habitat for ringed seals. And ivory gull populations are on the decline as their sea ice feeding areas disappear. (Read more about these and other changes here.)
  • Some species may be benefitting from these changes, but it’s fairly obvious that it’s not polar bears, or at least not all polar bear populations. A recent study found that polar bears have much higher metabolic rates than previously assumed, and the decreased availability of easy pickings (e.g., fatty seals hanging around on or near sea ice) mean that many are running a calorie deficit and using up their fat stores, endangering their survival and the long-term viability of some populations.
  • In addition, invasive species are rapidly becoming a significant threat to Arctic ecosystems and communities due a warming climate and increasing human activity. New-to-the-Arctic marine species can arrive all sorts of ways including ballast water discharge, hull biofouling, marine debris, docks brought into the region, and the release or escape of live animals. (For example, Russian scientists and managers released the omnivorous red king crab Paralithodes camtschaticus, a monster of a crab – up to 10 kgs and 1.5 m across, into the Barents Sea in the 1960s to establish a fishery.)
  • All of this creates a tremendous need to improve biodiversity monitoring in the Arctic to provide information to policy makers more quickly. The Arctic Council has lots of ideas on how to do this.

Now let’s talk some more about boats in the Arctic

  • And then this winter (Winter 2017-2018), another commercial vessel, another tanker carrying liquid natural gas, transited the Arctic’s Northeast Passage without an icebreaker in the opposite direction in winter. (Check out a pretty amazing time-lapse video of that voyage here.) Shipping firms are now investing in additional ships that can make this transit.
  • On the other side of the Arctic, a Finnish icebreaker transited the Northwest Passage in July 2017, the earliest summer transit on record. (The Northwest Passage is the sea route from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific through Canada’s Arctic archipelago that was first navigated by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen between 1903 and 1906.)  In total, 33 ships made the full Northwest Passage transit in 2017, up from the previous high of 20 in 2012.
  • Of these 33 ships, four were actually tourist vessels. And they weren’t just any old tourist vessels. The 13-story Crystal Serenity, which was the first tourist vessel to make the transit through the Northwest Passage in 2016 and which did it again in 2017, carries over 1,500 guests and crew members. The cost? Over US$20,000 per person.
  • In a bit of other shipping news, China just announced its intent to develop a “Polar Silk Road” through the Arctic in areas opened up by sea ice melt. Chinese ships have transited both the Northeast and Northwest passages in the past few years, and China’s increasing interests in oil and gas development, mining, fishing, tourism, and possibly military deployment in the region are making Arctic nations nervous.
  • Some very positive environmental and safety-minded maritime news did come out of 2017. On January 1, 2017, the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code went into effect for the Arctic. The Code lays out mandatory guidelines for ships crossing the polar regions, including rules for the design, construction, equipping, and operation of ships working in Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems; training requirements for their crews; and ways they need to protect the environment.
  • These rules are critical for mariner and passenger safety because ships working in the polar regions face unique risks – including extreme weather conditions, a lack of accurate nautical charts and other navigational aids, and lack of search and rescue capabilities nearby. (A good example of these problems is the cruise ship Clipper Adventurer grounding in 2010. It was following a course based on soundings made in the 1960s using old technology, and it ran aground on an unanticipated shoal. The incident dumped ballast and fuel into Coronation Gulf in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Twenty-eight (28) passengers and 69 crew members were stranded for two days before the Canadian Coast Guard could pick its way through poorly charted waters to come rescue them.)
  • Finally, there are some seafarers who are not appreciating the changing conditions, namely those seafarers traveling below the surface. US Navy submarine operators are reporting that current conditions in the Arctic are the most hazardous they’ve ever encountered there because of the increase in ice floes.

Oil drilling may also be ramping up in the Arctic

  • This may be changing, however, as Russia and Norway begin dramatically increasing their offshore oil and gas extraction in the region. Russia currently has four oil wells up and running in the Pechora Sea and plans to add 28 more. And Norway has just granted 10 production licenses in the Barents Sea. Environmental groups that filed lawsuits in Norway to stop the drilling on the grounds that it would violate the Paris agreement on climate change and the Norwegian constitution were just defeated in court.

2017 also brought lots of news about pollution in the Arctic

And, finally, recent news about marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Arctic

  • Finally, IUCN, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and the Natural Resources Defense Council recently identified seven Arctic marine areas that could potentially qualify for World Heritage status. Currently, only one Arctic site is recognized by the World Heritage Marine Programme – the Russia Federation’s Natural System of Wrangel Island.

Photo credits:

Record sea ice minimum in the Arctic in 2007. NASA.

Melt streams on the Greenland Ice Sheet on July 19, 2015. NASA.

Arctic. US Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook.

Polar bear seen ice cruising in the Arctic. Gary Bembridge. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Map of the Arctic region showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry. Arctic Council.

Russian cruise ship in Norway. Thomas Hallermann/Marine Photobank.

[1] Different sources use different geographic ranges for what is considered “the Arctic”. In this Skimmer, we use the term loosely to denote the Arctic Ocean and at times the coastal areas and marginal seas around it. If you need more specificity as to what area is encompassed in any individual use of Arctic in this Skimmer, please refer to the accompanying links for more information. Unfortunately, we were not able to cover many other critical aspects of Arctic change, particularly changes to terrestrial ecosystems and impacts on indigenous Arctic peoples.