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When the Arctic researchers Jacqueline Grebmeier and Lee Cooper made their annual scientific pilgrimage to frigid seas off Alaska last month, what they found was startling.Last-ditch ideas to save the Arctic ice Read moreWhile the world on average has warmed more than 1C because of human-caused climate change, the Arctic is heating much faster.This year marked the second-biggest sea ice retreat toward the North Pole ever, after 2012.Clams eat the toxic algae, and walruses, diving ducks and humans eat the clams.One study published this year found that marine communities in the Pacific Arctic will see profound changes in response to warming and reductions in sea ice.

When the Arctic researchers Jacqueline Grebmeier and Lee Cooper made their annual scientific pilgrimage to frigid seas off Alaska last month, what they found was startling.

Areas that were previously accessible at that time of the year only with an ice-breaking ship had become open, wavy water.

“We packed our long underwear, and we never put it on,” Cooper said.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Lee Cooper and Jackie Grebmeier with their daughter Ruth. Photograph: Lee Ruth Cooper

In years past, the pair could convince wary volunteers to accompany them by promising walrus sightings. But with no sea ice to perch on and fewer clams to eat, the tusked butterballs have moved to more comfortable accommodations on the beaches.

Instead, the research team saw huge fishing boats searching farther north for Pacific cod, and a container ship traveling a newly melted route from Quebec to Korea. It snowed only once during their three weeks on the water.

10 million snowblowers? Last-ditch ideas to save the Arctic ice Read more

While the world on average has warmed more than 1C because of human-caused climate change, the Arctic is heating much faster. The researchers found the shallow waters were up to 3C hotter than is typical throughout the water column. This year marked the second-biggest sea ice retreat toward the North Pole ever, after 2012.

Many Arctic science trips were canceled due to the pandemic. Grebmeier and Cooper agreed to strict rules to make their annual trek. They quarantined at home in Maryland and then again in Anchorage before flying by charter plane to Nome and boarding the 115ft research vessel.

The crew of the Norseman II had been at sea for eight months, due to tight restrictions on where they could dock. They extended their time out to accommodate the researchers. The couple also obtained samples and collected data for other researchers who could not make their usual journeys.

“It’s surprising that in my lifetime, particularly in the last five to eight years, how quickly things have changed,” Grebmeier said. “You can’t project like you used to.”

Grebmeier explained that the lack of sea ice was leading to higher levels of algal production – including the kind that can be deadly. Clams eat the toxic algae, and walruses, diving ducks and humans eat the clams. That’s also worrying because indigenous populations along the Alaska coast depend on clams for food.

One study published this year found that marine communities in the Pacific Arctic will see profound changes in response to warming and reductions in sea ice. Larger species that live longer are likely to move toward the pole by the end of the century, disrupting the food web.

Cooper said the changes were particularly sad for indigenous communities that have been in Alaska for thousands of years and are now coping with unstable sea ice and trying to hunt animals that are moving.

“Not in our lifetimes is it going back to the way it was when we first started out working in Alaska in the late 1980s,” Cooper said.