During the last decade, the southeastern Bering Sea shelf has undergone a warming of ~3°C that is closely associated with a marked decrease of sea ice over the area. This shift in the physical environment of the shelf can be attributed to a combination of mechanisms, including the presence over the eastern Bering Sea shelf of a relatively mild air mass during the winter, especially from 2000 to 2005; a shorter ice season caused by a later fall transition and/or an earlier spring transition; increased flow through Unimak Pass during winter, which introduces warm Gulf of Alaska water onto the southeastern shelf; and the feedback mechanism whereby warmer ocean temperatures during the summer delay the southward advection of sea ice during winter. While the relative importance of these four mechanisms is difficult to quantify, it is evident that for sea ice to form, cold arctic winds must cool the water column. Sea ice is then formed in the polynyas during periods of cold north winds, and this ice is advected southward over the eastern shelf. The other three mechanisms can modify ice formation and melt, and hence its extent. In combination, these four mechanisms have served to temporally and spatially limit ice during the 5-year period (2001–2005). Warming of the eastern Bering Sea shelf could have profound influences on the ecosystem of the Bering Sea—from modification of the timing of the spring phytoplankton bloom to the northward advance of subarctic species and the northward retreat of arctic species.
Keywords: Bering Sea; Circulation; Climate; North Pacific; Physical oceanography; Sea ice
Regional index terms: Southeastern Bering Sea shelf; Decadal variability; Heat content; Seasonal sea ice; Mean currents
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