The Bering Sea is the area of the far northern Pacific Ocean that separates Alaska from Russia. Sea ice in the Bering Sea shrank to its lowest levels in recorded history in 2018, an event with profound effects on northwest Alaska residents who depend on marine resources for food, cash, and culture.
The loss of ice is indicative of very rapid change in the entire northern Bering Sea ecosystem with ramifications for everyone in the region. A new peer-reviewed study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society examined the details and consequences of the drastic changes in the Bering Sea.
The study found that the maximum daily Bering Sea ice was the lowest on record, and the widespread impacts of that fact include unprecedented weather effects, marine wildlife die-offs, and sightings of animals outside of their normal range. Ecological changes included the first documented mass strandings of ice-associated seals, a redistribution of thermally sensitive fish, and a multispecies die-off of seabirds due to starvation.
Persistent and anomalous warm winter weather contributed to poor ice conditions that resulted in a fatal accident on an ice road and retreating and fractured sea ice led to ice-laden flooding that caused power outages and infrastructure damage. In addition, there have been more than 50 reports of unusual events related to weather and marine wildlife.
The record-low sea ice is a consequence of the warming climate resulting in a warmer ocean, later arrival of sea ice, and more frequent storms than in the pre-industrial era. These conditions are continuing to increase in occurrence.
Photo, posted April 7, 2014, courtesy of Allen Smith via Flickr.