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Forum for Arctic research connects experts, resident scientists and local hunters

  • Author: Jillian Rogers
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published August 16, 2015

Changes in the Arctic are contributing to a "new state" of northern marine ecosystems, according to more than 100 Arctic scientists and local experts that recently published multiple research papers on several facets of the topic.

That is to say, there's no going back.

From walrus haulouts to coastal erosion to new plant species, and more, the Arctic environment isn't what it was even just a decade ago.

The collection of research papers, called the Synthesis of Arctic Research project was led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists and supported by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, but included work from a variety of professionals from several agencies. The project used data and information from the past and present, including ongoing research to "capture the conditions of the 'new state' of the Pacific Arctic," according to NOAA.

Findings from the multiyear project were published in a special issue of Progress of Oceanography in July and included 17 papers ranging on a variety of topics that affect the Arctic and its residents.

One of those topics is whales. Whales are an integral part of Arctic life, providing food for thousands, and according to the research and samples taken from harvested bowheads, the species is faring very well despite the drastic loss of sea ice.

Craig George is the senior wildlife biologist for the North Slope Borough and was one of the scientists that took part in the collaboration. His focus was on bowhead whales and his findings revealed that the body condition of bowheads has increased between the years 1989 and 2011. He and his cohorts also found that the population is increasing rapidly, which could be linked to increased ocean productivity as a result of warming waters. More productivity in the ocean, ultimately means more food.

And while their future is uncertain, "it's a good time to be a bowhead," he said in his final report.

"They're robust in their body condition … and the population has been increasing at a steady rate; about 3.2 percent per year," said Sue Moore, a NOAA fisheries scientist who oversaw the entire project. "That is a surprise to people. It's counterintuitive because bowhead are an ice-adapted species and people might think because of the loss of ice, they're having a tough time like some of the other species may be."

Many of the papers published through the project focused on subsistence species and environments, she added.

Seals, too, are in good condition despite increasing challenges when it comes to habitat.

In the paper published by Justin Crawford, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who has been studying seals in the Arctic for years, it was noted that both ringed and bearded seals have thicker blubber, are growing faster and females are maturing at an increased rate.

However, the study by Lois Harwood, who looked at seals in the Canadian Arctic showed that seals aren't faring as well. Her paper revealed that ringed seals are showing a trend of declining growth and deteriorating body condition.

"This brings up a regional contrast that I think people need to start becoming more aware of," Moore said of the seal studies. "You may be looking at the same species but depending on where that animal is getting its food and conducting its life, the regional differences on how climate change expresses itself could have a different outcome."

The findings show that some marine mammals are thriving when it comes to feeding because of increased ocean output, but the loss of sea ice is also causing the demise of resting and birthing platforms.

"Having walruses haul out on land, I think will become increasingly common," Moore said. "They can't afford to swim continuously and they can't afford to go out with the ice over the deep basin because they can't dive deep enough for their food, so I think that's why they'll haul out more often on land."

The project also focuses on fish and birds, as well as marine mammals and ecosystems.

"Our intent with the SOAR project was to bring people together that had perhaps been working in the Pacific Arctic for a number of years, but hadn't worked with one another," Moore said.

She added that the project would also not be possible without the ongoing help and support of subsistence hunters across the Arctic, who allowed scientists to observe and take samples from harvested mammals and fish.

Residents and hunters from the Arctic have been encouraged to look at the findings through various meetings held across the north.

"Certainly the residents and hunters know their region like nobody else and they have a real depth of knowledge, and (we) are trying to complement that by providing information on where these animals actually range," Moore said. "I hope they find value in that."

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This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.