The Bering Sea forms the divide between the two largest landmasses on Earth: Eurasia and the Americas. Recent analysis of vegetation from a Bering Sea island has determined that the extent of sea ice in the region is the lowest it has been for over 5,000 years.
St. Matthew Island, a small island in the middle of the Bering Sea, has essentially been recording what is happening in the ocean and atmosphere around it, in the form of the composition of peat layers on the island. By analyzing the chemical composition of peat core samples, scientists can estimate how sea ice in the region has changed over the course of time.
Changes in the relative amounts of two oxygen isotopes in the sediment and plant debris trapped in the peat on the island reflect the nature of precipitation during the period when the peat layers formed. That ratio is correlated with the amount of sea ice in the region. Satellite data acquired over the past 40 years confirms this correlation.
Analysis of the data shows that the current ice levels are unprecedented in the last 5,500 years. These long-term findings affirm that reductions in Bering Sea ice are due to more than recent higher temperatures associated with global warming. Atmospheric and ocean currents, which have also been altered by climate change, play a large role in the presence of sea ice.
Summertime sea ice in the Arctic was expected to reach its second-lowest extent in September in 40 years of observation. Sea ice typically builds up again each winter, but the changes in ice extents actually lag behind changes in greenhouse gas level by decades. Future ice loss is already built into the system.
Photo, posted December 2, 2012, courtesy of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve via Flickr.