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'Long periods of open water' expected as the Arctic warms

Carey Restino | Arctic Sounder
“The loss of sea ice for the walrus means they lose their platform,” says NOAA's Sue Moore, noting that without the sea ice, large numbers of walrus have taken to hauling out on beaches in areas such as Point Lay, sometimes with negative impacts, such as the large mortality event seen in 2008 that was likely caused by a stampede. Photo courtesy USGS

Using words like “stunning” and “unprecedented,” a group of scientists from across North America gathered in Anchorage this week to discuss one of the fastest-changing ecosystems in the world -- the Arctic.

With sea ice retreating at record rates, not to mention a 50 percent reduction in total multiyear ice area and 75 percent loss in volume, scientists are watching very closely the changes occurring in the Arctic -- a change that produces winners and losers, they say.

Sue Moore, with the NOAA Office of Science and Technology, kicked off the 28th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium on Tuesday explaining some of the current scientific findings in the Arctic. “We are on thin ice now,” Moore said. “It’s not that we will have a seasonal ice-free future -- we have long periods of open water now.”

Moore reviewed how some marine mammals are being impacted by the warming environment and loss of sea ice, saying that while some species such as walrus, appeared to be losing ground, others, such as grey whales, are thriving with the new conditions.

“The loss of sea ice for the walrus means they lose their platform,” said Moore, noting that without the sea ice, large numbers of walrus have taken to hauling out on beaches in areas such as Point Lay, sometimes with negative impacts, such as the large mortality event seen in 2008 that was likely caused by a stampede.

For some whales, however, such as the bowhead whale, the changing temperature and ice regime has resulted in abundant food sources for many whale species. Bowhead whales have been seen feeding in large numbers close to shore near Barrow, where krill has been noted in abundance.

“It’s a good time to be a bowhead,” Moore said. “It’s a banquet for bowheads.” Kate Moran, with the Ocean Networks Canada, presented another perspective on the changing Arctic -- one that focused on Arctic research and policy.

Moran said that with storms and changing climate regimes, the general public is starting to take notice of the impact of the Arctic on the climate of North America. She noted how mainstream media weather programs had started using graphics showing weather systems connected to the Arctic.

“It’s getting hot and people are starting to understand that it’s getting hot,” she said. “Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in America.”

But while that awareness might translate into increased focus by some industry -- such as the insurance and shipping sectors -- many other areas of our society are slow to adjust. Public policy is still moving slowly, Moore said, especially policy that deals with the reduction of carbon.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Moore said, noting that major economic centers in the United States and Europe are being impacted, but policy has yet to be created as a response to those changes. “There’s no decision yet from a leadership perspective, there’s nobody saying we need to move in there and mitigate these carbon emissions because of this big change in our climate system and there’s basically no policies that are a result of this particular impact.”

Moore recommended that scientists need to be bolder in their statements about climate change and also be more personal in their conversations with the public. “Everyone’s afraid of crossing this line of advocacy,” she said. “We need to tell our won stories -- how we feel about it. That’s how information is exchanged in Native communities.”

Fran Ulmer, the current chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and former lieutenant governor of Alaska, noted that scientists need to communicate what they know to economists because policy decisions are made primarily in response to issues of jobs and economic insecurity and while scientists may see the connection between the health of the planet and the health of the economy, that connection isn’t seen by  everyone.

“I would encourage the scientists in the room to think about not only how they do their research but look for partnerships with economists and other scientists to be able to make these connections because just assuming that people will get that connectivity isn’t really working,” Ulmer said.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder. Carey Restino can be reached at crestino(at)reportalaska.com.