Ecosystem Studies of Sub-Arctic Seas (ESSAS) Annual Science Meeting: The Role of Ice in the Sea University of Washington Future of Ice Initiative School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington

The mission of ESSAS is to compare, quantify and predict the impact of climate variability and climate change on productivity and sustainability of Sub-Arctic and Arctic Marine Ecosystems. It has or has had programs in Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, and Alaska.


The conference contained four main areas of interest: 1) Modeling ecosystem response to changes, 2) Interaction of Arctic and Sub-Arctic ecosystems, 3) Paleo-Arctic ecology, and 4) Modeling of Fisheries.


The meeting was broken into sessions on relevant topics. Approximately 50 experts discussed their research in these areas of interest. Please contact North Star Group for assistance in contacting any speakers listed here, or for more details about their studies discussed below.


Session 1: Humans, Ice, and Sea in Sub-Arctic and Arctic in the Past


The first session focused on past changes and trends in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic environment. It highlighted the current changes in the region as an impetus for this focus. A larger implication of this session was illustrating the importance of ice in the Arctic region throughout history and its role in the changing environment.


Dr. Anne de Vernal of the University of Quebec at Montreal discussed her work modeling past levels of sea ice. She used micro fossils in the ice to assess its extent and, combining this information with what is known about Paleo-Eskimo migrations of 4,000-5,000 years ago, found that less sea ice and longer ice-free seasons corresponded with the large migration westward of Paleo-Eskimos. This research showed the importance of sea ice to survival and productivity in ancient times.


Dr. Akady Savinetsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences also highlighted the Arctic’s dynamic nature and its effects on inhabitants. Using whalebones in houses and other bones found around settlements, his team estimated the whale and seal abundance in the warm periods of the Late Holocene Period (2,500-5,000 years ago) and found that ice cover increased animal abundance.


Dr. Max Fiesen of the University of Toronto talked about the role of sea ice in Inuinnait life. The Inuinnait lived in the Central Canadian Arctic and used sea ice as a winter home base, allowing greater hunting productivity. By building snow houses on the ice, the Inuinnait accessed a larger hunting area and had better winter survival conditions.


Dr. Guðbjörg Ásta Ólafsdóttir of the University of Iceland and her team looked at cod and how the species has changed over time. By examining fish bones discovered at archeological sites hundreds of years old, they found that cod stocks have undergone significant changes and populations fluctuations.


Dr. Thomas Cronin of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) highlighted how the dynamic region has influenced creatures living there. Shifting temperatures and moving ice helped the Ostracode (a small parasite that lives only in ice) to move from the Atlantic to the Arctic Ocean.  This work can be used to understand modern ecological and biogeographic patterns in the Arctic.


Dr. Megumi O. Chikamoto of the University of Hawaii discussed Pacific and Atlantic Ocean effects and how they interact with the Arctic Ocean, leading to increased warm and cold layer stratification and the dramatic changes seen in the Arctic throughout history. This was echoed in the work of Kota Katsuki of the Korea Institute of Geoscience. She described how complicated dynamics in the world’s oceans often meet in the Arctic and can generate new conditions.


Dr. Lester Lembke-Jene and his team from the Alfred-Wegner Institute for Marine and Polar Research tried to further model the Arctic region. Using fossils and surface sediment proxies combined with complex models, they were able to better model and understand the Arctic Ocean over time and into the present.


Session 2: Role of Sea Ice in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic


The second session covered two main areas: physical oceanography, which considered how ice is changing the oceans and vice versa, and the role of sea ice in the ecosystem and the food web. The first panel explored the causes and implications of the region’s well-documented and dramatic changes.


Dr. James Overland of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory discussed the implications of Arctic changes. While the loss of sea ice is important, Dr. Overland focused on the changing nature of the ice itself. Arctic ice is now mostly flat first-year ice instead of rigid multi-year ice. The younger ice is less predictable, a much poorer habitat and does not block the same amount of sunlight. Refrozen sea ice is less likely and many years would be required to rebuild multi-year ice levels.


Dr. Overland described the Arctic Amplification process, where the nature of the Arctic environment increases the severity of phenomenon like the sea surface temperature rise and ocean acidification.


Asked about advising Shell Oil on its Arctic activities, Dr. Overland said that with the dramatic changes in sea ice, he expected the industry to be forced to sell more environmental fuels in the relatively near future. As a result, he said Shell needs to redirect its efforts to oil that is more feasible to extract in the short-term – that is, not in the Arctic. As Dr. Overland’s talk made clear, the Arctic environment isn’t likely to return to its former conditions because the region has changed fundamentally and will continue to change.


Dr. Hans O-Portner of the Alfred Wegner Institute for Marine and Polar Research addressed the Arctic’s large scale, dramatic changes and environmental threats. Not only is there a massive amount of ice loss, ocean acidification also has been amplified by the Arctic’s cold, carbon rich waters. Portner said Western and Southeast Alaska are most at risk. The Arctic is experiencing the same changes as the rest of the planet only at an accelerated rate.


Dr. Michael Steele of the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab spoke about the ocean circulation changes his lab has identified. His research forecasts warmer temperatures, more sea ice melt, more freshwater runoff, and more water column stratification. Additionally, Steele said the Beaufort Sea is heading towards synchronicity in melting, meaning the early and late season melting cycles are catching up with each other, which could affect regional shipping practices.


Dr. Craig Lee of the University of Washington discussed his research in sea ice break up. His lab looked at the Marginal Ice Zone on the edges of sea ice. Using autonomous vehicles, his team studied the wind’s effect on the melting and break-up processes and found that wind, even with new trends in ice formation, does not appear to influence break up. This research provides shippers and policy makers with more data about ice behavior.


Dr. Qinghua Ding of the University of Washington discussed Arctic Ocean warming. His team found that 50 percent of the region’s warming in the region could be explained by the influx of warmer tropical waters. This contributes to understanding Arctic rates of change relative to the rest of the planet.


Dr. Kumiko Azetsu-Scott of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Canada measured carbonate and acidification in the Arctic. The measurements taken in the Davis Strait showed a 44 percent increase in carbon accumulation in Baffin Bay deep water and Labrador Sea surface water. This could further support the changes in circulation that Dr. Steele, Dr. Lee, and Dr. Ding described.


The ice ecosystem group focused on different aspects of changing ice. Dr. Haakon Hop of the Norwegian Polar Institute said the switch from multiyear ice to mostly first-year ice has implications for algae and plankton. The rougher, more complex structure of the older ice makes a better habitat for these creatures and allows for far greater abundance, he found. As stated by Dr. Overland and Dr. Portner, this switch is widespread and is important because these small creatures form the base of the food chain and nourish valuable species.


Amane Fujiwara of Hokkaido University in Japan studied the wind’s effect on ocean mixing, phytoplankton, and algae. With less surface covered by ice, wind is now playing a much larger role in mixing these creatures, stirring up nutrients and spreading out blooms.


Dr. Samuel Laney of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute noted that as the base of the food web, phytoplankton are under the ice and hard to study. His group used a new imaging software and bio-optical/biogeochemical sensor suites to see the levels of phytoplankton and algae under the ice. Understanding the base of the food web contributes to knowledge about the rapidly changing Arctic.


Dr. Lisa Eisner of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center noted phytoplankton’s importance in her work. She found that fish after a cold year have more nutrition because they ate more phytoplankton and algae under the ice. Sea ice also provides habitat and prey species protection. It demonstrates why the shift from perennial sea ice to mostly first-year ice is significant.


Dr. Neil Banas of the University of Washington said phytoplankton is important to the food web, and that modeling it and other prey species’ life cycles would contribute to a better understanding of the higher trophic species. Adding the behavior of the prey to the modeling of the predator would add greater depth to understanding the larger species and in turn give policy makers more information about the region’s animal life.


Dr. Masato Ito of Hokkaido University talked about the influence of wind as the main source of iron for phytoplankton blooms. With less and less ice cover this is especially important because the phytoplankton will be more exposed to wind and its effects will become more significant in phytoplankton life cycles.


Dr. Meibing Jin of the University of Alaska Fairbanks found that while the presence of sea ice is positive for the primary production of creatures that live on or under it, large amounts of sea ice actually decrease the productivity, abundance, and health of open ocean creatures.


Dr. Benjamin Planque of the Institute of Marine Research in Tromso, Norway, also discussed the effects of changing ice on food webs, noting that food resources could be strongly disrupted by the rapid acceleration of melting rates. With sea ice playing such a key role in Arctic wildlife life cycles, its rapid depletion will change habitat and prey availability.


Dr. Yui Kono, of Hokkaido University said the sea ice retreat could have a major effect on fish: in areas with slower ice retreat, the cod were larger, but there was less distribution. Dr. Kono’s work was focused on the northern Bering and Chukchi seas during three summers.


Kristina Lore Kunz of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Marine Research studied the potential combined effects of ocean acidification and warming on cod. Her group found no statistically significant combined effect.


Donna D.W Hauser of the University of Washington spoke about the foraging behavior of belugas whales that appear to follow cod stocks. Arctic and Polar Cod appear to be moving northward and the whales that follow them could end up in waters that are less conducive to their life cycle.


Dr. Mary Beth Decker of Yale University discussed the warming trend’s effect on forage fish like pollock. Dr. Decker’s work focused on competition between these groups in the eastern Bering Sea. Overlap between forage fish and jellyfish which negatively affects the forage fish could have negative ramifications in higher trophic level species. She found that most do better in the cold, but jellyfish prefer warm water, which will likely cause a population increase.  Overall, the overlap is minimal, but it can be much larger in warmer years. With the Arctic warming trend, a higher prevalence of jellyfish is a growing concern.


Dr. Carin Ashjian of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute looked at how warming seas and retreating ice might affect copepods, small crustaceans. She found that they would likely expand into the Central Arctic and elsewhere if climate change warming trends continue.


Dr. Torkel Gissel Nielson of the Technical Institute of Denmark also discussed the changing seascape for these creatures. In Greenland’s warming Disko Bay, current temperatures are negatively impacting Arctic species of copepods, which rely more on sea ice and colder temperatures, relative to Atlantic copepods.  As an important prey species, copepod health is important to the region overall.


Dr. Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science’s group had a number of suggestions for improving management in times of lower sea ice that involve co-management, adaptive planning, and industrial activity mitigation. The specific suggestions were:

  1. Maintain effective co-management by local and government entities.
  2. Incorporate the variability of Arctic marine mammal responses to climate change into models and management plans.
  3. Maintain existing monitoring programs and implement new programs with clear goals.
  4. Understand and mitigate cumulative impacts from industrial activities.
  5. Recognize the utility and limitations and protected species legislation in a changing Arctic.


Dr. Olafur S. Astthorsson of the Marine Research Institute in Reykjavik described the “Ice Years” period between 1965 and 1971, when much greater ice in northern Iceland came up from the south. This resulted in lower primary production and smaller fish catches, and should be noted in view of current changing ice patterns.


Dr. Anthony J. Gaston of Environment Canada spoke about Arctic birds and their different ice preferences. In the High Arctic, birds tend to prefer early sea ice break-up while in the Lower Arctic early break-ups have negative effects. The Arctic break-up is now occurring earlier, meaning a likely shift in bird numbers, locations, and behavior.


Dr. Peter Boveng of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center discussed the importance of seals for ecosystem modeling. He said just their numbers alone make them necessary to include, but little attention has been given to their diets, behaviors and movements. Their numbers and environmental impact contribute to a more complete picture of the Arctic ecosystem.


Session 3: Ecological Role of Tidewater Glaciers


The third session’s focus was on tidewater glaciers and fjords, and their roles in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic. The session’s speakers looked at the effects of fresh melt water from glaciers on the oceanography and currents, and what will happen to local ecosystems when the water column makeup changes so dramatically.


Dr. Shad O’Neel of the USGS Alaska Science Center discussed the worldwide trend of melting tidewater glaciers (glaciers that calve directly into the ocean), which are diminishing at a higher rate than glaciers found in terrestrial mountain ranges and other inland locations. The higher melt rate forces more freshwater into the ecosystem, changes the freshwater and saltwater mixture, and influences ice formation.


Dr. Mattias Cape of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discussed the stratification and decreased mixing in the water columns in Greenland’s fjords, where the ice melt rate has quadrupled in recent years. Stratification can influence how nutrients are dispersed and how ice forms.


In the ecological area, Torkel Gissel Nelsen discussed the effects of more freshwater on zooplankton blooms in Greenland, and how this affects pelagic fish such as herring. These blooms can deplete nitrate in the water and force fish stocks to leave the affected areas, making them more inaccessible to fishermen. This concern was echoed by Andy Hodson of the University of Sheffield, who concluded more research must be done to better understand the effects of an influx of nutrients.


Jamie N. Womble of the Coastal Program at the National Parks Service spoke about the effects of sea ice loss on seals. Seals rely on sea ice, but with less sea ice in recent years, they are traveling further from land to forage. At the same time, they always seem to return to where they were born for the pupping season. As Dr. Boveng’s stated earlier, seals are an important part of the Arctic ecosystem and their health and behavior is important to a better understanding of it.


Dr. John F. Piatt of the U.S.G.S Alaska Science Center spoke about the implications of ice melt for birds, specifically Glacier Murrelet, which uses ice-covered areas for nesting. The larger message was that climate cycles make a major impact on life cycles because many Arctic species rely on sea ice as habitat or shelter during breeding periods.


Dr. James R. Lovvorn of Southern Illinois University talked about changing ice conditions causing negative effects and high mortality on the prey of threatened Eider ducks. The newer younger ice is a less effective habitat for prey species because it doesn’t last and provides less surface area.


Dr. Mayumi Arimitsu of the USGS Alaska Science Center spoke about the importance of glaciers and their effects on the ecosystem under all measurements. Marlene Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources spoke about how changing runoff patterns could change nutrients in the water and, in turn, change the distribution of predators in the affected areas.


Session 4: Social Scientific Investigations of Changing Sea Ice Conditions.


The fourth session focused on the social and political implications of changing sea ice in the Arctic. Brandon Ahmasuk of Kawerak Inc. of Nome, Alaska, described the peoples of Alaska and their reliance on ice for hunting activities and as a source of drinking water, and how its loss will affect them. Less ice will make hunting and winter travel more difficult, decrease access to drinking water, and provide less protection from storms.


Dr. Vince Gallucci of the University of Washington spoke about the political system in Arctic Canada. He noted a strong disparity between the mostly subsistence north and the more urban south. The best forum for bringing these two groups together is the Arctic Council through Permanent Participants. He also noted that given its lack of governing ability, the Arctic Council would be better served putting more energy into monitoring trade. Dr. Gallucci felt the success or failure of the indigenous and rural Arctic communities may be in the hands of the Arctic Council.


Dr. Alf Håkon Hoel of the Institute of Marine Research in Tromso, Norway, spoke about the management frameworks for Central Arctic fish stocks. He noted that the region’s fish stocks are sufficiently managed and controlled, and that scientists and coastal state policy makers have held ongoing meetings to formulate better resource regulations.


Dr. Linda Fernandez  of Virginia Commonwealth University and Brooks Kaiser of University of Southern Denmark Esbjerg talked about invasive species introduced to the Arctic by transiting ships. With more vessel traffic in the Arctic, more policy gaps are becoming apparent. One of them is ballast water regulations, which help control invasive species worldwide, but have not been written or adopted for the Arctic.


Betsy Baker, JD of the University of Washington Law School and Vermont Law School spoke about the changing relationship between law and the Arctic. She said U.S. and international laws do not effectively address multiple users or multiple stresses. Additionally, legal regimes have struggled with how to define ice. Earlier ice was defined as either water or land, but that doesn’t help managers. She said that recently the law has been shifting toward a more comprehensive framework which understands that sea ice is a unique phenomenon that must be regulated and understood as its own entity, and not as a manifestation of either land or water.


Dr. Keith Criddle of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences talked about the need to control tourism in the fragile parts of the Arctic. He suggested making the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code mandatory, at least domestically, using laws like the National Environmental Policy Act to control access to these fragile areas.


Dr. Alan Haynie of the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science, discussed the economics of adaptation in commercial fisheries. He said the industry has the resources to adapt to changing fisheries and that with the speed and intensity of the change the adaptation should happen soon, including a shifting balance between modernization and economic viability.


Dr. Jan Ohlberger of the University of Washington talked about cod density and its alignment with oil rich areas, and the conflicts that could arise as development increases. Dr. Ohlberger said population density allows for greater resilience from mortality events. The implication of this is that development agencies and fishermen both have an incentive to maintain healthy cod stocks. The agencies want to placate the fishermen and environmentalists, and the fishermen need the resource for their livelihood.