More than 700 media outlets covered NOAA’s release of the 13th annual Arctic Report Card last week, reaching an audience of an estimated 655 million people worldwide. And Clark University polar scientist Karen Frey was right in the mix.
Frey, associate professor in Clark’s Graduate School of Geography and a long-standing lead author of the Arctic Ocean Primary Productivity Arctic Report Card chapter, was one of four experts presenting the findings of 81 scientists from 12 countries. She and the other three co-authors spoke at a packed Dec. 11 press conference at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in Washington.
“In 2018, effects of persistent Arctic warming continued to mount. Warming air and ocean temperatures continued to drive broad, long-term change across the polar region, pushing the Arctic into uncharted territory,” Emily Osborne, lead editor of the Arctic Report Card and program manager of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, said in opening statements. “The Arctic continues to warm at twice the rate as the rest of the globe.”
“The vast majority of the Arctic Ocean has experienced clear long-term trends of warming,” Frey said. These long-term warming trends in Arctic Ocean temperatures, she said, have led to declining sea ice and increased plant growth, including toxic harmful algal blooms that are expanding northward.
Harmful algal blooms affect Arctic birds, mammals, and shellfish, presenting “food safety concerns for people in coastal communities who depend on these animals for major parts of their diet” while also causing significant economic losses for the fishing and tourism industries, she said. In the last 40 years, paralytic shellfish poisoning has increased seven-fold in Alaska, research shows.
Frey also noted increases in pollution from plastics, which likely travel in ocean currents from more populous parts of the world. “All roads in the global ocean circulation system lead to the Arctic,” she explained.
“A recent global survey shows that the Arctic Ocean has a higher concentration of microplastics than any other ocean basin in the world,” said Frey, adding that plastics affect the health of marine life and the people who consume them. “We are at the beginning of understanding how this problem is affecting the Arctic.”
Microplastics, or microscopic plastic debris in the environment, come from sources such as bottle caps, packaging material, fishing gear, cigarette filters, and paint from ships. Scientists can examine the chemistry of the microplastics to trace their origin, she explained.
Over the past week, the media continued to interview Frey about the Arctic Report Card. She was a guest on National Public Radio’s “On Point,” and was quoted in news articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Japan News, “PBS NewsHour,” Agence France-Presse (AFP), Axios, and the Associated Press (AP), among others. The AP article was picked up by numerous outlets, including the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, ABC News, and more.
Frey’s expertise has been widely recognized by her peers as well. In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences appointed her to serve on the Marine Working Group of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). IASC is a nongovernmental, international scientific organization that encourages and facilitates collaboration on Arctic research.
Throughout her career, Frey has been involved in research grants totaling more than $15 million. Most recently, her research has been funded as part of a three-year grant from the NASA Interdisciplinary Research in Earth Science Program; a four-year grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research Arctic and Global Prediction Program; and a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs Arctic Observing Network.
Over the past eight years, Frey has made several research trips to the Arctic, including one last summer to conduct research with two of her doctoral students — Melishia Santiago and Luisa Young, M.S.-GISDE ’13 — aboard a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea.
Recently, Frey has observed a startling trend: a decline in the number of days in which the Arctic waters of the northern Bering Sea were covered with sea ice, from a long-term average of approximately 150 days per year to only 20 days in 2018.
“We weren’t expecting to find that,” Frey said upon her return to campus last fall. “These have been very, very fast changes: It’s kind of like walking off a cliff.”
While out at sea this summer, Frey and her longtime research collaborators, Jacqueline (Jackie) Grebmeier and Lee Cooper of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, discovered that temperatures at the bottom of the shallow northern Bering Sea were above freezing for the first time in nearly 30 years of observations, and the biomass — the rich, nutrient-sustained bulk of life at the bottom — had declined precipitously. This biomass in the mud at the seafloor is a significant source of food for marine life, ranging from seabirds to walruses and gray whales that dive for mussels and clams.
“The question is, is climate change impacting sea ice and the physical environment of these areas to the point where these biological species can’t keep up, and they can’t adapt in such a short time? We are very interested to see how resilient or adaptive these ecosystems are over time,” she said.
“Time series studies are essential for evaluating whether this region is transitioning or even reaching a ‘tipping point’ that could [result in] large-scale ramifications for ecosystem structure in this highly productive Pacific Arctic ecosystem,” according to Frey and her co-authors.