Polar Bears International

An Arctic Cod rests in an ice-covered space. Alaska, Beaufort Sea, North of Point Barrow.

© Hidden Ocean 2005 Expedition: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration. Via Public Domain

5/20/2015 5:28:45 PM

"New Era" in Arctic Ocean

International research teams studying the sea ice and related species on opposite sides of the world are providing critical new knowledge that enhances our understanding of a warming Arctic.

North of Svalbard in the high Barents Sea, Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) researchers have allowed a research ship to be frozen into the ice so they can better access and collect data during the winter months. On the North Pacific side, a National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab is collecting data both from the wild and from carefully controlled laboratory experiments on key fish species like Arctic and Pacific Cod.

Climate change is impacting the Arctic so dramatically that researchers from the NPI say we are entering a "new era." Where there was once a thick, permanent cover of ice, there is now a thinner ice cover that melts each summer and steadily declines in total extent.

This new era is not good for Arctic cod, a fatty fish that lives in the northern ocean. Arctic cod are an integral part of the Arctic food web for northern people and marine mammals. Seals eat cod, and in turn, fill polar bear bellies.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a project that found even moderate warming could be detrimental for the fish.

Fish with lower fat content can thrive in warming waters, according to the research, but they are not as good a food source.

Geoff York, Polar Bears International's senior director of conservation said, "This new research highlights what many have termed 'ecosystem disruption' that appears more likely in a warming world. Entire systems, like the Arctic, are at risk for rapid changes that will be unprecedented in human history. Increasingly, these outcomes look dire for both Arctic species and people around the world."

The new cod research is being done at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center laboratory in Newport, Oregon. Until the now, the fish were difficult to study because they spend most of their lives near or under sea ice.

The NOAA research shows Arctic cod have a very narrow temperature range. Water temperature above 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 C) is fatal to Arctic cod eggs, the scientists found. 

As changes in Arctic sea ice extent and thickness progress, research on the potential impacts to Arctic cod and other species will continue and be critical to our understanding of of both anticipated changes and potential mitigation/adaptation.

Director of the NPI, Jan-Gunnar Winther, said, "We have almost no data from the Arctic Ocean in winter - with few exceptions - so this information is very important to be able to understand the processes when the ice is freezing in early winter and we'll also stay here when it melts in the summer."

Read more: BBC News, Climate drives 'new era' in Arctic Ocean; Alaska Dispatch News, Warming waters pose dangers to Arctic cod, research finds 

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