The Yupik whale hunters from Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island off western Alaska want to know when they will see bowhead whales again.
They listened patiently to eight hours of discussions among scientists recently at a workshop in Nome, Alaska, about how the rapid loss of sea ice is changing everything that lives in the ocean, from plankton to whales — just as they wait patiently for the whales to return to their island.
Nome lies sits south of the Arctic Circle, on the edge of the Seward Peninsula along the northern Bering Sea. The peninsula is the closest point of the North American mainland to Russia. Months of darkness and daylight alternate there. And the effects of the warming climate are front and center.
In June, people there told us, they watched a herd of musk ox retreat to small patches of snow that lingered in the hills as they panted through a three-day heat wave of temperatures at and above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The normal daily maximum in June is 54.9 degrees. More ominous, the ocean is now free of ice most of the year; not that long ago, ice covered the sea near Nome generally from early November to late May. The ice is crucial to the sea life that is central to the people who live there.
Conditions are likely only to worsen. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released Wednesday, reports that it is “virtually certain that the global ocean has warmed unabated since 1970” and warns that the extent of Arctic sea ice will continue to decline as air temperatures continue to warm.
We were among the biologists and weather scientists at the workshop trying to explain the changes, and that more that may be coming. We talked about how sea ice in the region is melting earlier and forming later. The ice was so thin last winter that an unusual series of southerly storms shattered what little ice there was in February and March, far ahead of the normal schedule.
This anomalous weather was followed by fourth highest recorded amount of snowfall in Nome in over 100 years. Heavier snowfall may seem counterintuitive, but the ice-free ocean now allows the atmosphere to hold more precipitation. The Iditarod sled dog race, which ends in Nome, was complicated last winter because, although there was plenty of snow, there were stretches of open water that were usually frozen over.
Over past centuries, the temperature gradient at the edge of the sea ice near Nome was a signal to marine animals that food was plentiful. Melting ice provides nutrients that fuel plankton blooms when sunlight is sufficient for photosynthesis. This ice melt during warmer, sunny days provides a banquet of plankton for small fish, shellfish and baleen whales. Those whales and other marine creatures typically followed the retreating ice, feasting as they hugged the Alaska coastline.
Now whales often show up emaciated because the timing and extent of the ice melt has changed. The system is out of sync. The ice melt happens too early in the season, when shorter days and lack of sunlight are insufficient to nourish the algae blooms.
What’s also troubling is the recent discovery of enormous cyst beds, the seed-like dormant resting stages of ocean algae, in ocean sediments in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait. Unlike the nourishing blooms that bring life to the waters of Nome, these cysts can hatch into toxic algal blooms when the ocean warms. The toxins produced by these algae were recently detected at low levels in over a dozen species of marine mammals throughout Alaska, many of which are consumed by Native Alaskans. These algal toxins were also identified in dead sea birds — murres, fulmars and storm petrels — found during an unusual die-off in Alaska beginning in 2015.
The international climate panel reports that harmful algal blooms have expanded and increased in frequency in coastal areas since the 1980s, in part because of the changing climate.
Will these harmful algae thrive in the warmer ocean of the future and grow rapidly, causing blooms large enough to dangerously contaminate Alaska’s marine resources? Unusually warm water, an anomaly similar to one that resulted in a record-setting harmful algal bloom that extended from central California to the Alaska Peninsula in 2015, is developing again in the Pacific. If this blob of warm water doesn’t dissipate this winter, its effects could be devastating, not only to the whale hunters and the families in Savoonga who eat the bounty from their hunts, but to the Alaskan way of life.
Vera Trainer is president of the International Society for the Study of Harmful Algae. Rick Thoman is a climate expert at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. Gay Sheffield is a biologist for the Alaska Sea Grant program.
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