National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2005

The importance of episodic weather events to the ecosystem of the Bering Sea shelf

Bond, N.A., and J.E. Overland

Fish. Oceanogr., 14(2), 97–111, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2419.2004.00321.x (2005)

Climate variability on decadal time scales is generally recognized to influence high-latitude marine populations. Our recent work in studying air–sea interactions in the Bering Sea suggests that interannual to decadal climate variability is important through its modulation of the frequencies and magnitudes of weather events on intraseasonal time scales. We hypothesize that it is these weather events that directly impact the marine ecosystem of the Bering Sea shelf. The linkages between the event-scale weather and the ecosystem are illustrated with three examples: walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma), Tanner crabs (Chionoecetes bairdi), and coccolithophorid phytoplankton (Emiliania huxleyi). We hypothesize that the strong recruitment of walleye pollock that occurred in 1978, 1982, and 1996 can be attributed in part due to the seasonably strong storms that occurred in the early summer of those years. These storms caused greater than normal mixing of nutrients into the euphotic zone which presumably led to sustained primary productivity after the spring bloom and, possibly, enhanced prey concentrations for pollock larvae and their competitors. Recruitment of Tanner crab was particularly strong for the 1981 and 1984 year-classes. These years had periods of prominent east wind anomalies along the Alaska Peninsula during the previous winter. Such winds promote flow through Unimak Pass, and hence an enhanced flux of nutrient-rich water onto the shelf. This mechanism may have ultimately resulted in favorable feeding conditions for Tanner crab larvae. Finally, an unprecedented coccolithophorid bloom occurred over the Bering Sea shelf in the summer of 1997. This summer featured lighter winds and greater insolation than usual after a spring that included a very strong May storm. This combination brought about a warm, nutrient-poor upper mixed layer by mid-summer. This provided a competitive advantage for coccolithophorid phytoplankton in 1997 and to a lesser extent in 1998. Unusually high concentrations of coccolithophores persisted for the following two years although physical environmental conditions did not remain favorable. While slow variations in the overall aspects of the physical environment may be important for setting the stage, we propose that the significant multi-year adjustments in the marine ecosystem of the Bering Sea shelf are more directly caused by major air–sea interaction events on intraseasonal time scales.

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