Five-year project will monitor Bering Sea
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — With a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, a team of biologists from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory will take an in-depth look at how global warming plays out in the Arctic ecosystems of the Bering Sea.
The two researchers, Jackie Grebmeier and Lee Cooper, have been visiting the area north of Alaska for nearly 30 years, reporting that the biggest changes have come in just the past few years. Last summer marked a record-low for Arctic sea ice extent, and eight of the last ten years have seen the lowest ice coverage on record.
With the NSF grant, they’ll assemble an international science team to staff a Distributed Biological Observatory in the Arctic, north of Alaska.
“We’re seeing the highest sea ice retreat in the whole Arctic,” said Grebmeier, who chairs the International Pacific Arctic Group. “It’s the most productive part of the Arctic, and it’s in the U.S.’ backyard.”
“It has been projected that there won’t be ice in the summer in the Arctic Ocean by 2050,” said research professor Lee Cooper. “But the ice is disappearing faster than all of the models.”
The scientists will closely monitor five biodiversity hotspots, tracking water temperature and salinity, the amount of zooplankton in the waters, to the number of clams living in the mud and how many seabirds, walruses, and polar bears continue to call the area home. The goal is to observe and document how the Arctic creatures are responding to climate change and track those ecosystem changes under further loss of sea ice.
In Arctic food webs, even small changes can have large cascading effects on higher organisms. Intense studies of these areas will help scientists to better understand how climate change affects Arctic biology, and how these changes in turn affect the Earth system. No ice in the summer means thinner ice that melts faster in the winter. It’s multi-year ice that keeps the Arctic cold, and helps control weather around the world.
“When you change sea ice, you change climate and weather patterns that affect us throughout the U.S.,” said Grebmeier, who represents the United States on the International Arctic Science Committee.
A decline in sea ice has other implications, as well. Fishing might move north. Ships from China might take a shortcut through the Bering Strait to reach destinations in Europe instead of the long trip across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal. Oil companies could more easily access oil reserves for more of the year. People who live in the Arctic are also interested in these changes, as increased use of the waterways can lead to contamination of fisheries, pollution, and shifts in their economy.
“When you go up there you really see changes,” said Grebmeier. “We’re like the frogs in the pot here in Maryland. Up there, just in the past 20 or 30 years, the changes have been quite obvious.”