According to scientists, nearly all of the ice that covers the Bering Sea has melted, which is wreaking havoc in local communities. The ice, which usually lasts until June, has already virtually disappeared. The Bering Sea, situated in the northern Pacific Ocean between Alaska and Russia, is showing signs of suffering climate change and has seen unheard-of winter melting levels.
The Alaska Peninsula separates the Bering Sea from the Gulf of Alaska. Covering more than 2,000,000 770,000 square miles, the sea is bordered by Alaska, Russia and the Aleutian Islands. The Bering Sea was named after Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator, who was the first European to comprehensively explore the area in 1728 as he sailed from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean.
In February, half of the area’s ice vanished within two weeks as temperatures rose to record levels and by the end of April only 10 percent of regular ice levels were intact.
“We’ve fallen off a cliff: very little sea ice remains in the Bering Sea,” said Dr. Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The low sea ice is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of people in western Alaska coastal communities by restricting hunting and fishing, which are the mainstays of the economies of these communities.”
The International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has released a report that highlights how these changes are impacting local communities.
“Travel between communities via boat or snowmachine was difficult and limited due to thin, unstable sea ice,” the report said. “At times there was not enough ice to harvest marine mammals, fish or crabs. As a result of increased open water, storm surf flooded homes and pushed ice rubble onto shore.”
The loss of ice, which usually provides protection to communities against the elements, has resulted in devastation in the region. In February, Little Diomede Island was hit by a storm that led to a loss of power for residents and damage to the water treatment plant.
Animals are also being impacted. In the town of Gambell, residents have noticed a descent in walrus populations due to the lack of ice.
According to Dr Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with the International Arctic Research Centre, “the warmed state of the Arctic has primed the region for low ice values”.
The high temperatures have been aggravated by Artic air currents, which have brought storms to the region as well as warm air from the tropics. The storms broke up the ice before it could stabilize. The amount of ice in the Bering Sea this year was at its lowest level since whaling ships started recording surface areas in 1850.
The International Arctic Research Centre scientists reported that ice levels may improve but will remain low if the water in the Bering Sea stays warm. They also advise communities to “prepare for more winters with low sea ice and stormy conditions”.
“Fellow Americans are suffering from a natural disaster,” said Dr. Thoman. “While low sea ice is not as dramatic as a wildfire or an Interstate 95 snowstorm, the impacts and hardships it produces are just as real.”