Almost all the ice covering the Bering Sea has melted, scientists have confirmed, throwing communities living around its shores into disarray.
The region’s ice cover normally persists for at least another month, and this year it has vanished earlier than any other year except 2017.
Located in the northern Pacific Ocean between Alaska and Russia, the Bering Sea is experiencing the brunt of climate change and has already drawn attention this year for unprecedented levels of winter melting.
In February, soaring Arctic temperatures led to around half the region’s ice disappearing in the space of two weeks.
This trend has continued into spring, and scientists have confirmed that by the end of April just 10 per cent of normal ice levels remained.
“We’ve fallen off a cliff: very little sea ice remains in the Bering Sea,” tweeted Dr Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is based in Alaska.
A report released by the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has outlined the real-world effects of these stunning environmental changes on the many communities that inhabit the Bering Sea region.
“The low sea ice is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of people in western Alaska coastal communities by restricting hunting and fishing, which are the mainstays of the economies of these communities,” Dr Thoman told The Washington Post.
We've fallen off a cliff: very little sea ice remains in the Bering Sea. From @NSIDC data, ice extent fell below 10% of the 1981-2010 average max extent on April 23, four weeks earlier than any other spring except last year. #akwx #Arctic @Climatologist49 @ZLabe @lisashefguy pic.twitter.com/ShQYDZL5Jf
— Rick Thoman (@AlaskaWx) April 29, 2018
“Travel between communities via boat or snowmachine was difficult and limited due to thin, unstable sea ice,” the report said.
“At times there was not enough ice to harvest marine mammals, fish or crabs. As a result of increased open water, storm surf flooded homes and pushed ice rubble onto shore.
The lack of sea ice in recent months has exposed these communities to the elements, as it normally acts as a buttress against extreme weather events.
A large late February storm devastated Little Diomede Island, leading to a loss of power for inhabitants as ice rubble covered the local helipad and damaged the water treatment plant.
Following an ice-free February in the town of Savoonga – located on St Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea – ice returned at the beginning of May.
However, local resident Aqef Waghiyi reported that “it is all broken up … no flat pieces and it is real rough”.
“There are patches of open water … biggest open patch in front of town is maybe as big as a football field.”
This lack of stability had an impact on animals as well. West of Savoonga in the town of Gambell, the lack of sea ice led to a lack of walrus traditionally found in the area.
The drivers behind the premature melting of the Bering Sea’s ice include both long-term global warming and an unfortunate confluence of weather events.
According to Dr Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with the International Arctic Research Centre, “the warmed state of the Arctic has primed the region for low ice values”.
Readings taken across the region have confirmed that both ocean and air temperatures were well above normal in the months leading up to and during the melting events of this year.
These high temperatures have been exacerbated by air currents over the Arctic guiding storms into the region and drawing warmer air from the tropics. The storms prevented ice from forming properly by breaking it up before it became stable.
The amount of sea ice in the Bering Sea was lower this winter than any year since whaling vessels began keeping written records in 1850.
In their report, the International Arctic Research Centre scientists wrote that while not every year will be as bad as this one, ice formation is likely to remain low if the Bering Sea’s waters remain warm.
They also warn that communities will need to “prepare for more winters with low sea ice and stormy conditions”.
“Fellow Americans are suffering from a natural disaster,” said Dr Thoman. “While low sea ice is not as dramatic as a wildfire or an Interstate 95 snowstorm, the impacts and hardships it produces are just as real.”