Is this a microcosm of wider environmental changes? If so how will such alterations impact our daily lives?
Science can provide some good data and insight, but no solutions. None of us can predict how quickly things get worse or restore, and what actions, at what rate, can restore some environmental balance. We are entering a new, expanded clean energy and digital economy pinning our hopes that those engineering changes alone can get us back on track.
Food and water could become very scarce very quickly. Then nothing is the same, and all the predictions get thrown out as we try to survive a new realty.
The Arctic Ocean may seem remote and forbidding, but to birds, whales and other animals, it’s a top-notch dining destination.
a great place to get food in the summertime, so animals are flying or
swimming thousands of miles to get there,” said Kevin R. Arrigo, a
biological oceanographer at Stanford University.
But the menu is
changing. Confirming earlier research, scientists reported Wednesday
that global warming is altering the ecology of the Arctic Ocean on a
The annual production of algae, the base of the food web, increased an estimated 47 percent between 1997 and 2015, and the ocean is greening up much earlier each year.
changes are likely to have a profound impact for animals further up the
food chain, such as birds, seals, polar bears and whales. But
scientists still don’t know enough about the biology of the Arctic Ocean
to predict what the ecosystem will look like in decades to come.
global warming has affected the whole planet in recent decades, nowhere
has been hit harder than the Arctic. This month, temperatures in the
high Arctic have been as much as 36 degrees above average, according to records kept by the Danish Meteorological Institute.
October, the extent of sea ice was 28.5 percent below average — the
lowest for the month since scientists began keeping records in 1979. The
area of missing ice is the size of Alaska and Texas put together.
the mid-2000s, researchers like Dr. Arrigo have been trying to assess
the effects of retreating ice on the Arctic ecosystem.
returns to the Arctic each spring and melts some of the ice that formed
in winter. Algae in the open water quickly spring to life and start
These algae are the base of the food chain in the Arctic
Ocean, grazed by krill and other invertebrates that in turn support
bigger fish, mammals and birds.
Dr. Arrigo and his colleagues
visited the Arctic in research ships to examine algae in the water and
to determine how it affected the water’s color. They then reviewed
satellite images of the Arctic Ocean, relying on the color of the water
to estimate how much algae was growing — what scientists call the
The sea’s productivity was rapidly
increasing, Dr. Arrigo found. Last year he and his colleagues published
their latest update, estimating that the productivity of the Arctic rose 30 percent between 1998 and 2012.
Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the University of California, San
Diego, was skeptical. As an expert on remote sensing, he knew how hard
it is to get a reliable picture of the Arctic Ocean.
The ocean is
notoriously cloudy, and algae are not the only thing that tinting the
water. Rivers deliver tea-colored organic matter into the Arctic Ocean,
which can give the impression that there’s more algae in the water than
is actually there.
Dr. Kahru and his colleagues decided to take an
independent look, scouring satellite databases for images taken from
1997 to 2015 — “every image available,” he said.
used a mathematical equation to determine how the color in each pixel of
each image was determined by algae, runoff, and other factors. Dr.
Kahru decided that Dr. Arriga was right: The Arctic Ocean has become
vastly more productive.
Marcel Babin, an oceanographer at
Université Laval in Quebec who was not involved in the new study, said
that the researchers had done “very careful work” that confirmed the
earlier studies. “It’s an important finding,” he said.
Not only is
the Arctic Ocean producing more algae, but it’s doing so sooner each
year. “These blooms are coming earlier, sometimes two months earlier,”
Dr. Kahru said.
In fact, the bloom may be coming even sooner than
satellites can record. On research cruises, Dr. Arriga and his
colleagues have found that open water is no longer a requirement for
algae to grow.
The ice has gotten so thin that sunlight reaches
through it. “Now they’re not even waiting for the ice to melt,” said Dr.
Arriga said of algal organisms.
If we stay on our current course,
pouring more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Arctic will only
get warmer, perhaps becoming ice-free in the summer. If algae can find
more nitrogen and other nutrients in the ocean, its productivity may
continue to rise.
Scientists can’t yet say what the ecological
effects of this transformation will be. “It is probable it will have an
impact on the whole food web,” Dr. Babin said.
Dr. Babin and his colleagues have been studying that impact over the past two summers on an expedition called the Green Edge Project,
which has studied the ecology in Baffin Bay off the coast of northern
Canada. They hope to present the first results of the survey next year.
species may thrive because they can graze on the extra algae. But if
the ecosystem comes to life earlier in the year, many species may be
Fish larvae may not be able to develop fast enough.
Migrating whales and birds may show up too late. A lot of the extra
algae may drop to the sea floor by then, untouched.
“It’s going to be a different Arctic unless we turn things around,” said Dr. Arriga.