Alaskan climate shocks hinder migration of Bowhead whales through the Bering Sea to the Beaufort.
The Arctic has been warming faster than any other region on earth. The marginal sea of the Pacific which divides the most extensive landmasses on earth, Eurasia (Russia) and North America (Alaska), is named the Bering Sea. It is here that the most dramatic changes can be seen observed.
Alaska has seen extreme climate changes over the past few years, including “sustained warmth, sea ice loss, coastal flooding, river flooding, and major ecosystem changes.” Alaska’s warming temperatures are consistent now. And these changes can be tied directly to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The climate crisis that is bearing down on us are a result of our relentless consumption of fossil fuel energy.
Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been documenting the extreme changes occurring due to the breakdown of the Arctic climate. The report titled Alaska’s Changing Environment is worthy of reader exploration on the myriad climate crises unfolding across the state.
This warming varies greatly across the state, with northern and western regions warming at twice the rate of southeastern Alaska. The growing season has increased substantially in most areas, and the snow cover season has shortened. Precipitation overall has increased, and like temperature, the changes vary regionally. The ocean around Alaska is now regularly warmer than at any time in the past 150 years, affecting everything from algae to fisheries and human health. Coastal flooding during the autumn storm season has occurred on the Bering Sea coast throughout history, but recent winters have brought record low ice, which in the past has served as a buffer to big Bering Sea storms. This has resulted in out-of-season flooding occurring in places expecting stable sea ice.
This Fall, the annual winter Bowhead whale migration is two months overdue, according to NOAA and tribal elders. Subsistence hunters on the northern slope who depend on the whales to get them through the brutal winter worry they will not have enough to eat.
Great piece by @hbernton on ecosystem impacts from the rapidly changing environment in the northern Bering Sea and some the ways this is impacting Alaskans right now. #Arctic #akwx #ClimateChange @amy_holman https://t.co/MjvVk3Rrps?
— Rick Thoman (@AlaskaWx) November 4, 2019
The baleen whales feed off the shores of British Columbia in the summer and migrate through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the fall for winter. There is some thought that the Bowheads may have enough food sources to find a reason not to leave the waters off of British Columbia. The changing marine food web may be a possibility as well – due to warming in the northern Pacific, particularly the southern Bering Sea, Southern fish having now advanced into the Northern Bering Sea, changing the marine food web with unknown consequences for the Arctic.
Are you afraid of the dark?
Bowhead whales certainly aren’t! They spend a large portion of the year below a dark, ice-covered ocean, making visual communication difficult. Instead, bowhead whales rely on a wide range of vocalizations to navigate, feed, and communicate. pic.twitter.com/gPRPBkqffR
— Bering Land Bridge NP (@BeringLandNPS) October 24, 2019
The bowhead whale hunt is an essential cultural and subsistence tradition for the Inupiat of Alaska’s North Slope. It dates back at least 1,500 years, and annual harvests can supply families with hundreds of pounds of meat.
“It is the way of our life, and it’s why we are who we are,” said Deano Olemaun, a top official at the North Slope Borough.
Each fall, captains from Alaska’s northernmost community, Utqiagvik, drive their powerboats 10 to 20 miles offshore to hunt whales. Usually by this point in the season, successful crews have towed dead bowheads back to town, divided up the meat and shared it with friends and family, who eat it through the winter until the whales return on their spring migration.
But this year, a month into the fall hunt in Utqiagvik, the bowheads still haven’t shown up.
Whaling crews have not landed a single one, which some residents say is unprecedented for a town that last fall captured nearly 20. And federal scientists say their airborne surveys have shown bowheads much farther offshore than their usual range.
— Ocean Conservancy (@OurOcean) September 10, 2016
But up until this fall, the bowheads’ migration past Utqiagvik had been relatively steady in spite of the dramatic environmental changes happening in the area, said Craig George, a longtime North Slope Borough wildlife biologist. The spring migration has been trending earlier, but the fall harvest has been relatively stable until this year, he said.
“It’s pretty abrupt,” he said.
The fingerprints of climate change have been everywhere in Alaska. July was the state’s all-time hottest month; sea surface temperatures have been breaking records around Alaska’s coastline; and reports of salmon die-offs came in from across the state as river temperatures hit 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
At a time when the Arctic’s sea ice pack normally would be nearing the Alaska coastline, the ice pack is still 400 miles north of Utqiagvik. What little snow there is in Utqiagvik has been melting, with temperatures above freezing and five October days breaking or tying heat records.
There’s been a steady drumbeat of climate anomalies in Alaska in recent years, especially in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast.
Heat waves in the Bering Sea over the past two years have eradicated a “cold pool” at the bottom of the ocean, which has major implications for the ecosystem. “Basically the whole Arctic part of the Bering Sea ecosystem has been replaced by the southern fish,” said Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
See why Bowhead Whales are the jazz singers of the sea. pic.twitter.com/x88MX0sddT
— Seeker by The Verge (@Seeker) December 9, 2018
“In all these years, that’s been beluga habitat,” she said. That’s when she started to get the feeling: “There’s something different going on here.”
October is when things got weird.
“We started hearing reports from the whalers out of Barrow saying they haven’t seen any whales,” said Ferguson, referring to the former name of Utqiagvik. “Usually by October 1 they’ve landed at least one whale. Now we’re at October 30 and they haven’t seen one.”