For indigenous communities on the Bering Sea, a way of life is at risk as climate change hits fish populations and ricochets through ecosystems.
When dead salmon wash ashore along the coast of the Bering Sea, the problem is much bigger than dead fish. It’s a sign of deeper trouble cascading through the Arctic’s ecosystems.
It’s been happening more and more the last few years—fish, dead or dying, rolling in with the tide, said Mellisa Johnson, executive director of the Bering Sea Elders Group. “The seals, they don’t want to eat those types of fish. They know they’re unhealthy for consumption. So then they don’t have enough fat reserves to last them.”
As the Arctic warms roughly twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the effects are reverberating far beyond any single species. Massive systems—from the sea ice and permafrost to the jet stream—are beginning to behave in unexpected ways.
The changes are impacting species, fishing industries and local communities, including the people who have long called Bering Sea communities home. Indigenous hunters are working harder than ever to find the food they have long relied on, and they’re sometimes making macabre discoveries: sea birds dying en masse, nets filled with fish that have rarely been seen in those areas.
These lost, dead and dying species are sending a message, loud and clear: the Bering Sea is sick, Johnson said.
Climate change is playing out across the Arctic in dramatic ways. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners describe many of them in their annual Arctic Report Card, released Tuesday. Among the 2019 report’s findings:
- The average annual surface air temperature in the Arctic from October 2018 through August 2019 was the second warmest in the observational record.
- This year’s minimum Arctic sea ice extent tied for the second lowest in the satellite record.
- The Bering Sea saw record low winter sea ice in 2018 and 2019. The group Bering Sea Elders report having less access to subsistence foods, and that warming waters and ice loss are having cascading impacts on the food web.
- Birds are being affected, including the breeding population of ivory gull in the Canadian Arctic falling 70 percent since the 1980s.
- Greenland’s ice sheet also experienced rapid melting in 2019—beginning earlier than usual and reaching 95 percent of the surface.
The report walks through changes taking place across the region—how warming global temperatures lead to melting sea ice and decreased snow cover, which then contribute to further warming. How a warmer ocean is having myriad effects, like causing species to shift their ranges and making it harder for sea ice to form, as well as impacting weather at the mid-latitudes.