National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce

Scientists Document Striking Changes in Pacific Arctic Ecosystem during Four Year Study

A mooring used by EcoFOCI in the Bering Sea to understand the determine the influence of the physical and biological environments on marine populations and the subsequent impact on fisheries

EcoFOCI maintains an array of four moorings on the southeastern Bering Sea Shelf that collect year-round measurements to better understand the mechanisms and changes that may impact the productive marine ecosystem. 

February 26, 2020

The northern Bering and Chukchi Seas are among the world’s most productive ocean areas. They are home to millions of seabirds and marine mammals and vibrant Indigenous cultures. The region has also long been one of the fastest warming places on the planet. In a recnetly published paper in Nature Climate Change, a multi-disciplinary team of academic, government, and private sector scientists reports that dramatic changes in these Arctic ecosystems due to warmer ocean conditions. The scientific team, participating in a four-year Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program, observed conditions more typical of subarctic ecosystems.

"The rate of change over the study timeframe came as a shock. Having a team with the expertise to put together the pieces across the whole ecosystem simply drives home how far-reaching the changes are and how much they matter," said Henry Huntington, lead author of the study.

Some key observations over the past several years of the study include:

  • Near-bottom waters that typically remained close to freezing year-round have in the past four years warmed for several months in the summer and fall.
  • Sea ice that used to start forming each fall has been absent or sparse into January and February and the spring ice retreat was earlier than normal in recent years.
  • Juvenile Arctic Cod, which dominate pelagic fish communities in the northern Chukchi Sea, were substantially more abundant in 2017 than in 2012 and 2013.
  • In 2017 pink salmon were observed to have increased dramatically in abundance in the northern Bering Sea
  • Bowhead whales that typically migrate south of St. Lawrence Island were observed year-round north of the Bering Strait.
  • Ice seals were absent from vast portions of some of their main breeding areas, and dead seals were reported in unusually high numbers on the Bering and Chukchi coasts.

The North Pacific Research Board, in cooperation with other organizations funded the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program. The goal of the program was to better understand the mechanisms and processes that structure the ecosystem and influence the distribution, life history, and interactions of biological communities in the Chukchi Sea.  Previous integrated ecosystem programs were undertaken in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The big question for scientists remains whether these changes reflect a new norm. Collaborative research efforts like this are important because they allow scientists to monitor changes as they are happening and provide meaningful information to local communities and resource managers so they are better able to respond and adapt.

The team of authors includes physical and biological oceanographers, ichthyologists, ornithologists, marine mammalogists, marine ecologists, and social scientists, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, the North Pacific Research Board, Stantec, and Huntington Consulting.

PMEL's EcoFOCI program was involved with the study. EcoFOCI is a joint research program between NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab and NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center. EcoFOCI scientists integrate field, laboratory and modeling studies to determine how varying biological and physical factors influence large marine ecosystems within Alaskan waters.

Read the full press release here