Report Card Reveals 7 Alarming Trends in the Arctic Ecosystem for 2011

from Wildlife Promise

Photo credit: Peter Hemming

For years, climate scientists have been saying that the Arctic will be the “canary in the coal mine,” the place on Earth that will first witness significant climate changes. An alarming new report from NOAA makes it painfully clear that this proverbial canary is dead.

The 2011 update to the Arctic Report Card makes the bold statement that the Arctic Ocean climate may have already achieved a “new state.” The dramatic decline of Arctic sea ice thickness and summer extent has resulted in an upper ocean that is warmer and less saline. At the same time, the Arctic Ocean appears to have settled into a new circulation regime over the past 14 years.

And, if all these impacts of warming weren’t enough, ocean acidification (caused by the uptake of excess atmospheric CO2 by the oceans) is starting to take its toll in the Arctic Ocean. Changes in pH are especially acute in the Bering Sea, which just happens to provide 47% of the catch caught in US commercial fisheries.

The impacts of this new climate state: “profound, continuing changes in the Arctic marine ecosystem.” When a scientific assessment uses words like “profound,” it is definitely worth paying attention. Such assessments tend to be scientifically cautious, wary about overstating the science or causing unjustified alarm.

The trends in the Arctic marine ecosystem are indeed astounding:

  • Seven of the world’s 19 polar bear populations are declining. At least 2 of these declining trends have been tied directly to sea ice loss.
  • Walruses are “hauling out” by the thousand along the north coast of Alaska in July and August. This unprecedented behavior has happened 4 of the last 5 summers, and is thought to be related to sea-ice losses in the Chukchi Sea.
  • Baleen and bowhead whales are finding increased access to now open Arctic waters.
  • Phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like organisms) productivity has increased by about 20% over just a 12-year span, mainly because there is so much more open water.
  • Phytoplankton blooms in the spring are happening up to 50 days earlier than they did in the late 1990s.
  • Phytoplankton communities are shifting to smaller species.
  • Species that live on or near the floor of the Arctic Sea are being replaced by species typically found in more temperate oceans.

As we close out another record-setting year for the Arctic, this report provides even more evidence that polar bears and other Arctic wildlife truly are contending with climate change right now. The question is whether we can take the steps necessary to curb carbon pollution and reduce the severity of impacts to come.

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