The record low February 2018 sea-ice extent in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska, compared with the 168-year historic record. Graphic: Zachary Labe / University of California-Irvine / Heather McFarland, University of Alaska

By Andrea Thompson
2 May 2018

(Scientific American) – April should be prime walrus hunting season for the native villages that dot Alaska’s remote western coast. In years past the winter sea ice where the animals rest would still be abundant, providing prime targets for subsistence hunters. But this year sea-ice coverage as of late April was more like what would be expected for mid-June, well into the melt season. These conditions are the continuation of a winter-long scarcity of sea ice in the Bering Sea—a decline so stark it has stunned researchers who have spent years watching Arctic sea ice dwindle due to climate change.

Winter sea ice cover in the Bering Sea did not just hit a record low in 2018; it was half that of the previous lowest winter on record (2001), says John Walsh, chief scientist of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “There’s never ever been anything remotely like this for sea ice” in the Bering Sea going back more than 160 years, says Rick Thoman, an Alaska-based climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A confluence of conditions—including warm air and ocean temperatures, along with persistent storms—set the stage for this dramatic downturn in a region that to date has not been one of the main contributors to the overall reduction of Arctic sea ice. Whereas a degree of random weather variability teed up this remarkable winter, the background warming of the Arctic is what provides the “extra kick” to reach such unheard-of extremes, Walsh says. […]

The lack of sea ice is not just hitting walrus hunting hard; throughout the winter and spring, coastal communities have seen substantial flooding and erosion during storms without much of the usual sea ice to act as a buffer. What little there is has been very thin stuff local residents call “junk ice,” Thoman says: “It wasn’t very much better than no ice at all.” [more]

Shock and Thaw—Alaskan Sea Ice Just Took a Steep, Unprecedented Dive


  1. Dave Bonnett said...

    I spent several late winter months in the early 1980s on the sea ice several hundred miles north of Prudhoe Bay. We were recording undermine acoustics and marine mammals far from anthropogenic noise. We generally had 2-3 meters of ice. Based on recent sea ice charts we would not have that situation today. Sad  


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