National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2024

Transformative ecological and human impacts from climate change and diminished sea ice in the northern Bering Sea

Overland, J.E., E. Siddon, G. Sheffield, T. Ballinger, and C. Szuwalski

Wea. Climate Soc., 16(2), 303–313, doi: 10.1175/WCAS-D-23-0029.1, View open access article at AMS (external link) (2024)

Our goal is to tie climate-scale meteorology to regional physics and ecosystem changes and demonstrate a few resulting impacts to which regional peoples are having to respond in the Alaskan Bering Strait region. The sea ice loss events in the winters of 2017/18 and 2018/19 initiated a series of marine environmental, ecological, and industrial changes through a chain of connected events from jet-stream meanders, storms, southerly winds, warmer sea temperatures, and minimum sea ice cover. Resulting impacts continue as coastal communities respond to ongoing nutritional, cultural, and economic challenges. Global warming potentially initiated these events through a weakened atmospheric Arctic Front. Ecological shifts included a transition/reorganization of the Bering Strait regional marine ecosystem. Subsequent changes included shifts in zooplankton species, increases in large-bodied, predatory fish species moving northward, an ice seal unusual mortality event, and seven consecutive years of multispecies seabird die-offs. These changes in the marine ecosystem create a serious food security concern. Ongoing impacts include large, toxic harmful algal blooms and coastal erosion. Recent changes to the maritime industries of the transboundary waters of the Bering Strait include increased industrial ship traffic, planned development of the Port of Nome, and northward proximity of foreign fishing activity. Projections for the next decades are for an increasing frequency of low sea ice years and continuing ecosystem and industrial transitions that contribute to increasing economic and food security concerns for the 16 coastal communities that compose the Bering Strait region.

Significance Statement. Extreme events in the atmosphere/oceans and resultant record sea ice minimums in 2018 and 2019 were manifested in marine ecosystem transitions and maritime industry impacts. This led to ongoing concerns over the food safety and food security of marine resources essential to the nutritional, cultural, and economic well-being of Alaskan coastal communities of the Bering Strait region. Persistent weakening of the Arctic Front may signal an increased frequency of low sea ice events into the next decades.

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