Arctic habitats, cultures are on thin ice

Christina Larson
Associated Press

Washington – Rising temperatures and shrinking snow and ice cover in the Arctic are endangering habitats, fisheries and local cultures, according to a report issued Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

FILE - In this Aug. 16, 2019, file photo, large icebergs float away as the sun rises near Kulusuk, Greenland.

“A lot of people think of the Arctic as being a faraway place, but the loss of ice is affecting people now – it’s changing peoples’ lives,” said Don Perovich, a Dartmouth College geophysicist who contributed to the report. “It isn’t just a bunch of cold statistics.”

The Bering Sea, which lies between Alaska and Russia, is one of the world’s two most productive fisheries. But the Arctic region is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the report found.

The past two years saw record low levels of sea ice – frozen seawater – floating on the Bering Sea during winter, the report found. And the habitats of fish on which commercial fisheries and indigenous groups depend have shifted northward, according to the report released at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

“Fishing industries are built around the assumption that fish will be in a certain place at a certain time, but that’s changing in response to a rapidly changing Arctic,” said Waleed Abdalati, an environmental scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder who was not part of the report.

For the first time, the U.S. agency’s annual “Arctic Report Card” includes observations from indigenous groups who hunt and fish in the region.

“We look for the return of the sea ice every fall season,” wrote 10 representatives of the region’s more than 70 indigenous communities. “The ice provides access to seals, whales, walrus, fish, crabs and other marine life for our subsistence harvests.”

The communities once saw the ice in the northern Bering Sea during eight months of the year, but now they only see it for three or four months, the report found.

Meanwhile, a new scientific paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature found that the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet has accelerated. The melting is now seven times faster than in the 1990s.

Less ice means feeding disruptions for many Arctic species. Polar bears stalk their prey, including seals, on ice. Ivory gulls scavenge on ice for scraps of those hunts, as well as for small fish.