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Bering Sea ice is at an ‘unprecedented’ low right now

Sea ice is again at a historic low in the Bering Sea.

At the time of year when ice usually reaches its maximum, there’s open water in a vast area stretching from Bristol Bay to the Bering Strait, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“You could take your sailboat and sail from Dillingham all the way to Little Diomede and never see much more than an ice cube,” he said.

March and early April are typically when sea ice in the Bering Sea reaches its maximum extent, and when communities that live along the coast travel on the ice for subsistence hunting and fishing.

The unprecedented lack of ice in the Bering Sea follows another record-breaking winter. Last spring, in 2018, the extent of ice in the Bering Sea only reached half of its previous lowest size, which was recorded in 2001. Thoman called the lack of ice “stunning” at the time.

This spring, the situation is even more extreme. While there’s more ice on the Russian side of the Bering Sea, there’s virtually none on the Alaska side.

"On the Alaska side, there’s actually less ice than there was at the lowest point last year,” he said.

Low ice had real consequences in Western Alaska villages, ranging from flooding to accidents. Subsistence activities like crabbing and fishing through the ice can’t happen. Walrus hunting season, which relies on ice, is coming up too.

“Probably the most dramatic thing about this is that both last winter and this winter are just nothing like any previous winters, as far as ice in the Bering Sea goes,” Thoman said.

Thoman cited two major factors as contributing to this year’s lack of ice: The first is warm ocean temperatures, both at the surface and at depth, in the Bering Sea.

The second has to do with weather, and vicious storms that destroyed much of what ice pack did form. This winter started with a mild November that gave way to colder temperatures in December and January.

“The ice had a period of time where it was able to grow,” Thoman said.

But then six weeks of severe storms destroyed what was already a thin and fragile ice layer, Thoman said. Lots of what Thoman calls “remnant ice” broken up in those storms has been pushed up to shore in the Nome area and on the southside of St. Lawrence Island, he said. But in other places, like Shishmaref, there’s more open water.

As striking is how much sea ice has been lost to a series of storms on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula

According to Thoman, an area the size of a Montana has gone from at least partial ice to water in six weeks.

Impacts of the missing ice will be felt into the summer. Last year, people noticed dramatic changes to the northern Bering Sea ecosystem as a result of the low ice, Thoman said: “Fish came pouring north. Birds starving. Sea mammals having problems in changes in the food web.”

This year, the dynamics are setting up to be similar.

“This story is not over yet,” Thoman said.





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